Artwork by Robin Silverman inspired by Luan’s migration story

In spring 2021, we received a call from a family in Westchester, New York. The caller was named Noel*, and his cousin, an Albanian teenager named Luan*, had crossed the U.S. border from Mexico and was stopped by Border Patrol. The family didn’t know where Luan was taken or what the government intended to do with him. He didn’t speak Spanish or English and would be extremely vulnerable if expelled to Mexico through Title 42.

Luan had fled Albania after his father was persecuted for his political beliefs. Their relatives in New York— which included aunts, uncles, and cousins—eagerly awaited Luan’s arrival to help him start a new life in the U.S. The family asked the Florence Project’s Rapid Response Team to advocate for Luan’s release.

“One more thing,” Luan’s cousin said, just before finishing the call, “does it matter that he turns 18 on Saturday?”

It mattered. As a 17-year-old, Luan was exempt from the Title 42 border closure. But if he turned 18 in a Border Patrol holding cell, he could then be expelled to Mexico and turned away indefinitely as an adult asylum seeker. Border Patrol had already held Luan in custody for days instead of transferring him to a children’s shelter within 72 hours, as required by law. Our team worried that the government would continue to hold Luan illegally, run out the clock on his status as a minor, and summarily expel him under Title 42.

Florence Project attorneys contacted the Border Patrol to ask why Luan hadn’t been placed in the Unaccompanied Children Program, in which the government has a duty to reunify the child with family in the U.S. Despite having an uncle available to serve as his sponsor, Luan was stuck in a dangerous limbo; the government claimed it didn’t have the capacity to accept Luan into its shelters or start the reunification process.

This was not acceptable.

The Florence Project got in contact with Luan’s mother in Albania and she signed paperwork allowing a Florence Project attorney to represent her son. The team also reached out to congressional offices and to Biden administration officials who joined in advocating for Luan’s release. Meanwhile, the teenager’s uncle and cousin flew from New York to Arizona, so he would know he had family nearby.

After several days and nights, the Border Patrol agreed not to expel Luan to Mexico on his 18th birthday. However, Luan would be sent to an ICE detention center in rural Arizona where adults are held in prison-like conditions.

The Florence Project Rapid Response Team immediately worked to file a humanitarian parole request to get Luan out of adult detention. Once he arrived at the ICE facility, Luan was able to speak on the phone with his family; he shared that he felt scared, isolated, and confused. No one spoke his language. Luan’s family told him that the Florence Project was doing everything it could to fight for his freedom.

Luan has a history of epilepsy, and in the request for his release, the Florence Project legal team warned that the young man was at risk of a medical crisis inside the detention center. Several days passed while Luan’s humanitarian parole request was reviewed. The young man coped with his sorrow by playing chess with himself. He made the board out of pen and paper after finding loose chess figures. It helped distract him from his stress.

After a week of furious advocacy, the Florence Project convinced the Department of Homeland Security to release Luan. His uncle picked him up outside the detention center in Eloy, Arizona, and together they flew to New York, where Luan’s extended family welcomed him with hugs, tears, and several days of large, celebratory meals. They also played a lot of chess.

Casey Dempsey, a Florence Project attorney who worked on the Rapid Response Team, says, “When we found out that Luan was transferred to Eloy Detention Center, I didn’t lose hope, but I was really concerned about what was going to happen. So, when we found out he was going to be released, it was the best news I have heard in a long time.

“It just showed how not giving up and continuing to have hope could change the outcome.”

Artwork by Robin Silverman inspired by Luan’s migration story

Ever since he traveled from the Balkans to Mexico and then crossed the border into the U.S., the fear of being deported hung over Luan. The young Illustration by Gabriel Spencer for the Florence Project man’s asylum case could take months or years to adjudicate. But now at least he can go through the legal process while living freely with his family.

Luan’s cousin Noel reflected on the family’s experience: “Every time we were getting messages from [the Florence Project] with any information, we were so grateful. It was such a relief from being down and hopeless. I don’t think we’re ever going to forget this.” Luan has since resumed attending high school. “He is going to pay you back by being successful and happy and helping other people in need,” Noel says.

“Endlessly, we want to appreciate and express our thanks to you as a group. Considering the danger he was in from the starting point, to the finishing point where he is safe with us, we are so grateful. It’s indescribable.”

*Pseudonym used to protect privacy.