From a young age, a sense of social justice was instilled in Maria Woltjen. Her parents were civil rights activists, working for open housing in Chicago. At just 18 years of age, Maria traveled to Israel to live in a Kibbutz, and was there during the 1971 Yom Kippur War. She also witnessed the horrific injustice of apartheid, firsthand, while living in South Africa.
In 2003, Maria was approached by Heartland Alliance to develop the Immigrant Children’s Advocacy Project, to represent the best interest of the child for unaccompanied immigrant kids in deportation proceedings. Maria recalls how she felt when learning that there was not a best interest standard in the immigration courts. “…in every other system in which children are the subject of a court proceeding, there is a best interest standard… In the immigration system, an immigration judge can make a decision about whether to deport a child back to their home country or not, and that judge does not have to take into consideration the best interest of the child,” explained Maria.
In 2006, Maria partnered with the University of Chicago Law School to expand this work, which officially became known as the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. Maria single-handedly developed the only program in the nation that provides independent child advocates for unaccompanied children in detention. Child Advocate volunteers visit with the kids in detention to understand their personal story and why they came to the U.S. Alongside Young Center attorneys and social workers, Child Advocates make recommendations to immigration judges, asylum officers and enforcement officials that highlight the child’s best interest. Once just a solo operation, Maria has grown her organization to over 60 staff members, with offices in border cities such as Harlingen and Phoenix, as well as San Antonio, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Maria and her colleagues have their work cut out for them. In the last year, 50,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the U.S., including many cases of children that were forcibly separated from their parents before and under the zero-tolerance policy. Most of these children, according to Maria, are fleeing violence and poverty. Her team is working tirelessly to advocate for the best interests of these children and reunite them with their families.
Maria is focused on reforming the immigration system, in which children are currently treated as adults. She leads her team to tirelessly advocate for the best interest of these children and their safety. Because of her passion and dedication, many immigrant children have, and will continue to receive the protections they deserve.
The Global Citizenship Award is presented to an individual(s) who volunteered or worked to meet the needs of the world’s potentially vulnerable populations by building safer, more resilient communities and providing needed relief.
Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2019 Heroes. For more information about the 2019 Heroes Breakfast, click here.