Fleeing horror in Ecuador, man fights to stay in Minn.

Jose Maria Chimborazo Guaman was 17 when he witnessed the murder of his father in his native Ecuador. His mother beat him as a boy, he often didn’t have food to eat, and he has limited cognitive ability.

When he turned 18, he fled Ecuador to the United States “to escape memories of his father’s murder, his abusive mother, and his father’s murderers who continued to threaten [him].”

A probate court in Minnesota appointed Nube Galarza Gonzalez, a friend of Guaman’s sister, as a guardian for the young man, but it refused to make any immigration-related findings that would allow Guaman to obtain “special immigrant juvenile” (SIJ) status, a classification that allows children who are victims of abuse, neglect, or abandonment to remain in the country legally.

A probate court judge said it’s not appropriate for the court to make rulings on immigration.

On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed.

“Congress charged state courts with making SIJ findings because it ‘recogniz[ed] that juvenile courts have particularized training and expertise in the area of child welfare and abuse, which places them in the best position to make determinations on the best interests of the child and potential for family reunification,’” Judge Carol A. Hooten wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.

Hooten said the federal government intended a “collaboration” of state and federal systems to help abused kids who flee to the United States and need a guardian, and said the state’s probate court impaired that intention when it refused to wade into the immigration status of Guaman.

We reverse the probate court’s order denying appellant’s motion for additional findings and remand for the probate court to consider whether there is a factual basis for making SIJ findings and, if so, to make SIJ findings. In its order, the probate court must make specific and detailed findings, based on Minnesota law, addressing each of the three SIJ-related issues: dependency/custody, parental reunification, and the best interests of the ward. In its discretion, the probate court may reopen the record to determine whether there is a factual basis for making SIJ findings.

The guardian also asked the Court of Appeals to send the case back to a different judge, arguing that he has a “predisposition” against granting the special immigration status. But Judge Hooten refused.

“While the probate court judge was mistaken regarding the probate court’s duty to consider appellant’s request for SIJ findings, nothing in the record indicates the presence of extrajudicial bias or prejudice,” she said.

Here’s the full opinion.