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In re B.A.L.

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

July 18, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF B.A.L., A CHILD

          On Appeal from the 247th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2015-19994-7

          Panel consists of Justices Jennings, Higley, and Lloyd.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Terry Jennings Justice

         Appellant, Dina Estela Velasquez Pereira, on behalf of B.A.L. (the "child"), challenges the trial court's order on her motion for predicate findings necessary to enable B.A.L. to petition the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS") for Special Immigrant Juvenile ("SIJ") status.[1] In two issues, Pereira contends that the trial court erred in making its findings and exceeded its jurisdiction in adjudicating B.A.L.'s SIJ status on the merits. We vacate and dismiss.

         Background

         In her First Amended Petition in her Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship ("SAPCR"), Pereira alleged that she and B.A.L., who was born in El Salvador on August 7, 1998, were living in Harris County. Pereira alleged that although B.A.L.'s father, Leonel Antonio Lopez Bustillo, a resident of the State of Maryland, had lived with Pereira and B.A.L. and consented to being listed on B.A.L.'s birth certificate as his father, Bustillo had not, for over a decade, visited B.A.L. or provided child support. Bustillo had, over the preceding two years, committed acts of violence against B.A.L. "in the form of neglect" and would "likely expose the child to loss or injury that jeopardize[d] [his] physical health and safety." Pereira sought an order from the trial court appointing her as B.A.L.'s sole managing conservator and ordering Bustillo to pay child support. She also requested certain special findings necessary to enable B.A.L. to petition the USCIS for SIJ status, [2] a type of immigration relief allowing non-citizen children to obtain lawful, permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship in the United States.[3] Pereira asked the trial court to find that reunification of B.A.L. with Bustillo was not viable and that returning B.A.L. to his country of origin, El Salvador, was not in his best interest.[4]

         After Bustillo, despite service of process, did not answer the suit, an associate judge held a default hearing. At the hearing, Pereira testified that B.A.L., after his birth, had lived with family members in El Salvador. At some point, after his family members had become too elderly to care for him, B.A.L. moved to Harris County and lived with Pereira. Pereira explained that if B.A.L. were returned to El Salvador, he would not have anyone to live with or care for him and she feared for his safety because of an ongoing threat of gang-violence in El Salvador. She asked the trial court to find that "family violence ha[d] occurred in the form of neglect and abandonment" by Bustillo and that it was not in B.A.L.'s best interest that he be returned to El Salvador.

         On January 12, 2016, the associate judge issued a "Rendition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship, " finding:

(1) [The court] has jurisdiction of this case and the parties and no other court has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction;
(2) [A]ll parties entitled to citation were cited;
(4) [Pereira] provided sufficient evidence to support her requested relief with respect to conservatorship, possession and access, support, and medical support as reflected in the record and the Court GRANTS that specific requested relief;
(6) [Pereira] failed to provide sufficient evidence to support a finding of family violence;
(7) [T]he Office of Refugee Resettlement is charged with reuniting, when possible, an unaccompanied minor child with a parent or adult caregiver living in the United States. . . .
(8) [B]efore the Office of Refugee Resettlement will release a child, the adult is required to sign a Sponsor Care Agreement.
(9) The Office of Refugee Resettlement released [B.A.L.] into [Pereira's] custody and [she] signed a Sponsor Care Agreement;
(10) [Pereira] is fulfilling her obligations under that agreement; and
(11) [R]eunification with one parent is viable, and has, in fact, been effectuated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

         Based on her findings, the associate judge concluded that B.A.L. "does not qualify as a special immigrant."[5]

         On August 7, 2016, B.A.L. turned eighteen years old. Four months later, on December 22, 2016, the referring court signed a "Final Order Modifying and Adopting the Rendition, " in which it granted Pereira's motion for entry of a final order, modified the associate judge's "Rendition" to deny Pereira's requested attorney's ...


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