Rosa Flor Diaz Godinez’s hair used to be dark, plain and limp. She did not talk much. And she rarely smiled. The pretty young teenager arrived at Maricopa County’s Estrella Jail in September in shackles with no money, no parents and a lot of fear.
Like countless other immigrants, Diaz had crossed the U.S.-Mexican border illegally. But along the way, the van she hoped would carry her to safety was stopped by county sheriff’s officers on Carefree Highway. She was arrested and charged with conspiring to smuggle herself into the country.
A fake ID told the officers she was 18, and she landed in an adult jail. But there were things about the girl that the officers didn’t know.
Diaz was really 17. She fled Mexico to escape a man who had raped her when she was in sixth grade.
And those things made her eligible for “special immigrant juvenile status,” a visa for abused and unaccompanied illegal immigrant minors.
Diaz had no idea this opportunity existed. But thanks to a group of lawyers and activists, Diaz is now out of jail with her green card and living in the homes of Mesa Pastors Elizabeth Cruz and Magdalena Schwartz.
She got her visa and green card just days before her 18th birthday, after which she would have been ineligible.
“I never imagined I’d get my green card,” she said in Spanish. “It’s my first time here in the United States. I never thought this dream would come true.”
Tens of thousands of juvenile illegal immigrants like Diaz enter the United States every year, but few manage to gain special status, said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and one of Diaz’s lawyers.
Congress created the special visas in 1990 to provide refuge to victims of child abuse. Schey estimates that of all the undocumented minors who enter the United States, roughly half are likely abused, abandoned or neglected. In 2005 alone, Homeland Security apprehended 114,569 juvenile illegal immigrants nationwide.
“The vast majority of immigrant children who are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status have no clue that it even exists,” Schey said. “And even if they did, they would not have access to legal assistance to help them benefit from the legislation.”
Diaz’s story is rare.
For starters, most Mexican children don’t get the opportunity to pursue the special visa. An intergovernmental agreement with Mexico requires immigration officials to return all illegal Mexican juveniles. Consequently, most do not even get a chance to speak to a lawyer, said Aryah Somers, a children’s attorney with the Florence Project.
Another problem is that many juveniles who apply for the special visas turn 18 before the legal process can be completed. In 2005, Somers said only 17 detained immigrant children received the visa. It’s even harder for illegal immigrant children already living in abusive households to take advantage of the opportunity.
Diaz’s journey began in Hidalgo, Mexico. About three years ago, she was raped by a relative who lived on her block, according to both Diaz and Schey. The rape left her pregnant with her now 3-year-old son.
The man went to jail but was released after seven months. Fearful for her safety, Diaz decided to flee the country and leave her son with her parents.
“I wanted to take revenge because of what he did to me,” Diaz said. “But then a psychologist talked to me and explained a bit better why these things happen.”
Diaz and her cousin walked through the desert for about two days and eventually made it into Maricopa County. Shortly afterward, they were charged with conspiring to smuggle themselves into the county.
More than 500 immigrants have been charged under the Arizona law. Those who plead guilty may never return legally to the United States.
Diaz said her cousin couldn’t bear Estrella Jail anymore, signed a confession and was deported. But Diaz refused to sign anything.
She’s lucky she didn’t. Schey, activist Roberto Reveles, the pastors and others discovered her while making routine visits to meet with detainees.
Schey is challenging the Arizona “coyote” law in federal court. He said he was shocked to discover a minor in an adult jail.
“We don’t think these people should be detained at all, and so to detain a minor seems to add insult to injury, and to detain a minor who is in fact eligible for legalizing her status seems to add further insult to further injury,” Schey said.
Lt. Paul Chagolla, a sheriff’s spokesman, said the girl was held in Estrella because she lied about her age and presented a false ID. Once the Mexican Consulate proved her age, Chagolla said she was released into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the charges were dropped.
He said the county does not charge minors under the anticoyote law.
In December, the government transferred Diaz to Southwest Key, a nonprofit organization that provides shelter and counseling services to unaccompanied, undocumented minors.
In order to get the special visa, attorneys had to prove she was dependent on a state court and that she was abused, abandoned and/or neglected. But before they could go before the state court, they had to get permission from the Department of Homeland Security to get the court order.
Schey said he approached the department numerous times, but for months there was no response. Meanwhile, the girl’s 18th birthday was rapidly approaching.
Even after the government finally conceded in March, she faced more hurdles.
She had to pass interviews with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services and face an immigration judge. With just five days left, CIS initially refused because they said they suspected she was really Honduran because an officer who interviewed her noticed that she recognized a Honduran slang word, Schey said.
After his law office threatened to go to court, CIS relented and granted her the visa, he said. An immigration judge awarded a green card a few days later, on March 26.
“From a time standpoint, it’s miraculous, and I use that in a biblical sense,” said Ric Tobin, a Phoenix lawyer whose Christian faith motivated him to help with the girl’s case for free. “There were a lot of prayers.”
On a recent afternoon, Diaz sat on a sofa in Cruz’s Mesa home in a baby-blue V-neck, jean capris and heeled shoes with fancy beading. Cruz said Diaz is finally starting to smile.
“It’s hard, but she’s getting better little by little,” Cruz said. “Her self-esteem is much higher. In the beginning, she didn’t talk. She was withdrawn. Now, she laughs. She jokes.”
Diaz plans to enroll in classes to learn English and find a job to help support her child back in Mexico.
“I feel good and very happy. I’m the first in my family to get my residency,” Diaz said. “My siblings said, ‘What? How did you do it?’”
“They don’t believe me. They’re still in doubt.”
But Cruz said the girl’s family believes Diaz deserves it.
“One of her brothers told me, ‘I think they gave her her residency because she’s suffered the most.’”