A Family for Lupe

Alone and abandoned in a dangerous city, Lupe finds her way to a beloved sister with the help of New York Justice for Our Neighbors. 

A Motherless Child

Lupe has no memories of living with her parents as a real family. Her father left when she was still a baby. Her mother deserted her a year later to start a new family with a new man.

Lupe wasn’t welcomed to join them.

Lupe’s great grandmother raised her, but she always looked upon the child as an encumbrance. It was not a happy childhood. When the old lady decided she could no longer care for Lupe, the 15-year-old was put out on the streets alone.

Two things sustained her during that scary and lonely year: her church and Mirna, her half-sister, more than a dozen years her senior, who had come to the United States to escape their abusive father when Lupe was just an infant. Mirna now lives on Long Island, just outside of New York City, with her husband and two little boys.  

All through her tough childhood, Mirna had been a lifeline for Lupe, the one person who valued and loved her. For as long as Lupe could remember, Mirna made sure to call her little sister at least once a week and regularly sent her money.

“I could always talk to her about anything,” Lupe says. “She was always the mother to me.”

Bodies of victims killed by gang members are a far too common sight for students trying to make their way home safely. Photo credit: Encarni Pindado for NPR

And now Lupe was alone in one of El Salvador’s bigger cities. She had found work and spent her free time with her church youth group. That was a comfort.  But the gangs don’t like these church youth groups. They have other plans for teenagers—especially teenaged girls like Lupe.

There were two gang members who began stalking her as she left church. They made threats of what they would do to her if she didn’t join them.

Lupe was 16 years old and terrified, but she never wavered. This was not going to be her life; her faith told her it was wrong, and her sister told her—repeatedly—that she deserved better.

A New York Reunion

When New York JFON attorney Samantha Blecher first met Lupe, the teenager had already made the dangerous journey to the United States, spent a month in one of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters designed for minors, and was now in the care of her sister.

“Mirna was her surrogate mother,” says Samantha. “She did all the things a mother would do…enrolling Lupe in high school, making sure she had all the supplies she needed, and even trying to get her sister counseling.”

Lupe was safe now, but she still lived with the trauma accumulated over 16 years.

“She struggled a lot to tell her story,” says Samantha. “These were things she had put behind her, and it was painful to her to relive them all over again.”

Attorney Samantha Blecher  at a New York JFON immigration legal clinic in 2019.  

Because Lupe was a minor who had been abandoned by her parents, she was eligible for a Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) classification. Immigration Court has no jurisdiction over SIJ cases; approval comes from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Lupe’s petition was approved in April of this year—during the very height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. It was very welcome news, but there was a hitch:  

For most countries-of-origin—Venezuela, for example—an SIJ approval comes with a green card and the ability to work legally. But because Lupe is from one of the Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—there is a long waiting list for her to get a green card. She will, most likely, have to wait another three years.

Luckily, although her position seems tenuous, Lupe’s SIJ approval and green card eligibility provides a reassuring amount of protection from deportation. And she’s not alone, says Samantha. Long Island, New York has one of the largest populations of unaccompanied minors seeking to reunite with family in the country.

Meanwhile, Lupe has a lot of catching up to do—both with her family and with her education.

Spring blossoming

Lupe’s favorite subject is English and she is proud that she can now communicate—albeit haltingly—with her attorney in that language. She loves high school and knowing she can and will, one day, graduate.  She loves her new church group. She loves New York.  She loves anything artistic and creative, including dyeing her hair crazy colors.

Most of all, she loves her family: her surrogate mom and stepdad and the two curly-haired nephews who are more like little brothers.  

It isn’t an easy or cushy life, but it is a good one.

“I’m so glad,” reflects Samantha, “that Lupe is now living with the person she was always meant to be with.”


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