In the trenches of the fight for U.S. immigration reform is Oak Parker Maria Woltjen.
With a dedicated staff of about 80 volunteer bi-lingual guardians ad litem (Child Advocates), she is fervently standing up as the federal immigration system for the best interests of a rapidly growing group of unaccompanied immigrant children.
These kids count on The Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights at the University of Chicago for support as they face the possibility of deportation alone, without their parents.
As its founder, Woltjen says the tens of thousands of these unaccompanied children have made incredible journeys from places like Bosnia, Romania, India, China, Central America, and other noncontiguous countries, hoping to find relief and protection from a homeland that is no longer safe.
"Right now, we are seeing a significant influx of unaccompanied immigrant children (or, children coming to the U.S. on their own), and the numbers have increased dramatically," she says.
"It was 7,000 to 8,000 a year for quite some time, but in 2012, 14,000 children came; 26,000 in 2013 and the government projects that in 2014 60,000 children will come to the U.S.
I don't have the answers to the larger immigration issues, but it is very easy for me to advocate that anyone who is making decisions about a child should look at their best interests. Right now, we still do have an immigration system that doesn't look at children's best interests, because it was built for adults."
Over the past two years, in addition to the hands-on child advocacy work they do, The Young Center has also been advocating changes in the law to include specific protections, including a best interests standard.
The language did not make it into the Senate bill this go around, but "it was debated on the floor of the senate, and we had Senators Leahy, Landrieu, Reid, and Franken speaking to the Senate about the need for a best interest standard, that is progress," Woltjen says.
To date, although civil and criminal courts routinely appoint guardians ad litem to represent the best interests of minors—and although the U.S. "best interests" model was the benchmark around which the international Convention on the Rights of the Child was crafted—U.S. Immigration Courts do not recognize immigrant children as distinct from adults, nor do they consider the children's best interests when deciding whether to grant protection or to have the child deported, she says.
One of a kind
Woltjen, who has lived in Oak Park since 1993 with her spouse, Alex Kotlowitz, a Peabody award-winning author, and their two children, says that after working her way through an undergraduate degree and law school, she started out as a litigator, and gained her legs in this field by spending five years at the Chicago Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights doing children's rights work.
In 2003, Woltjen was asked to create a pilot program for the United States Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). That agency provided seed funding to create a national initiative that is now known as the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, a non profit whose aim is to engage attorneys with experience in children's rights and immigration to recruit, train and supervise bilingual guardians to represent the best interests of minors.
Many of those guardians are immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants. As trained volunteers, it is their "job" to form long-term relationships with these children who have been caught by Homeland Security border patrol agents, and subsequently transferred into the custody of another government agency to await a deportation proceeding.
In March 2006, the Young Center was invited to join the legal clinic at the University of Chicago Law School as an independent project. Since 2009, The Tides Center has been the fiscal sponsor, although private fundraising is needed, she says to do the investigatory, fact-finding work that takes place in other countries on the children's behalf.
"We serve the most vulnerable children, who may have been abused in their home countries … and we are also seeing children who are being trafficked for labor, so for those kids, they are paying off a huge debt, and have come here to work off that debt," says Woltjen.
As the second child in a line of nine kids, Woltjen says her parents, Jack Woltjen and Frances Kendrick, were active participants in the Catholic Worker Movement, which was founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, based on the guiding principles of hospitality towards those on the margin of society, communalism, and "personalism," an Internet source says.
So, until age six, Woltjen lived on a working farm in Missouri, where her social justice-oriented parents cared for recovering alcoholics.
After that, they moved all over the country, following her Dad's various incarnations, based on his commitment to America's needy.
In her formative years, he opened soup kitchens in New York and Chicago, and helped to root out racism in the Chicago housing market.
"My dad always worked in civil rights, and I grew up hearing about people being discriminated against, and that is how I was raised," she says.
Now 59 years old, Woltjen says she has always known that she wanted to do public interest work, and that's what she, her staff and child advocate volunteers do. Ninety percent of the time, those decision makers — immigration authorities, including judges, asylum officers, border patrol, ICE (or enforcement officers) follow the Young Centers recommendation, in terms of a child's best interest.
"When we get a call that one of the kids we have served has been granted asylum, or has been granted one of the Visas [because] we have submitted a best interest letter in that decision being made, for us, that is a big success," she says.
"People should be interested in what we are doing because these are vulnerable kids and because they are here, in our country. I think that we should make sure that the next place they go should be safe."