DES MOINES, Iowa — The superintendent of Iowa’s largest school district and his wife are opening their home to a 17-year-old Guatemalan immigrant after her parents were forced to leave the U.S. because they weren’t in the country legally.
Jennifer Galdames was a year and a half from graduating high school when her stepfather and mother were detained in October while dropping off her sister at school, the Des Moines Register reported . Jennifer’s stepfather was detained for deportation to his home country of Mexico. Jennifer’s mother was permitted to voluntarily return to Guatemala with Jennifer’s 8-year-old sister. Her biological father was killed in Guatemala years earlier due to the violence that has sent many fleeing north.
Jennifer applied for legal residency by seeking Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Her mother planned to send her to a relative in New Jersey, but Jennifer didn’t want to leave Iowa. So Des Moines Schools Superintendent Tom Ahart and his wife, Jami Bassman Ahart, offered to take her in and serve as her temporary legal guardians so she can complete her high school degree.
Jami Bassman Ahart said she and Tom had much to share and “too much love to keep to ourselves.”
The Aharts are newlyweds who live in Des Moines with their 6-year-old son.
Jami Bassman Ahart was connected with Jennifer’s mother through a mutual acquaintance and helped the family navigate contacting the jail where Jennifer’s stepfather was detained. Jami had collected supplies for the family when she learned that Jennifer didn’t want to move to New Jersey. She consulted with Tom, who agreed with the plan to welcome Jennifer into their home.
The Aharts signed and notarized papers with Jennifer’s mother declaring them her temporary legal guardians. They also contacted the family’s pro bono immigration lawyer to work on Jennifer’s lawful residence status.
Jennifer crossed the border alone three years ago. Her mother arranged for a coyote, or smuggler, to escort her to the border in 2014. She was apprehended by border officials after crossing into Texas, and spent a night in a detention center. Her mother had contacted a lawyer, who got Jennifer out of the detention center. Jennifer then boarded a bus to Iowa.
Her parents can’t pursue legal status as an option, even though her younger sister is a U.S. citizen by birth. But, Jennifer can file for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. A judge determines the special status based on findings of abuse, neglect or abandonment. A judge must rule that returning to a country of origin or being reunited with parents is not in the child’s best interest. If that status is approved, Jennifer must wait another five years before she can apply for citizenship. She currently isn’t eligible to work or receive a driver’s license until she has legal resident status.
Jami Bassman Ahart gave Jennifer a phone so that she can contact her mother in Guatemala. The Aharts also launched an online fundraiser to help with Jennifer’s college savings. They’ve raised more than $4,000 toward the $10,000 goal.
Tom Ahart said he wants Jennifer to have the same opportunities as his son.
This version of the story corrects the name of the agency to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.