ORLANDO — Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson said Tuesday he's ready to send religious runaway Rifqa Bary back to Ohio. But first her parents must prove she is a legal immigrant.
That may not be easy.
"There is a high chance this child is not legally in this country," said Krista Bartholomew, the court-appointed attorney for the Columbus teen who fled her Muslim family, saying she feared they would kill her or send her back to Sri Lanka for converting to Christianity.
Until Tuesday, the issue of Rifqa's immigration status has been a peripheral issue in the case, overshadowed by questions of religious interpretation, allegations of abuse and proper jurisdiction.
But on the same day that attorneys for the girl's family appeared to have achieved the change of venue that they had sought from the beginning, they encountered a potentially serious obstacle.
In a teleconference with a judge in Ohio on Tuesday, Dawson agreed that the case should be returned to Rifqa's home state, but only after two conditions have been met.
The first? That she can finish her semester course work with Florida Virtual School even if she's in Ohio. That's more or less a formality.
The second was that he see her immigration papers.
Bartholomew has asked for them before in hearings over the past couple of months. The documents she's received, she said Tuesday in court, are incomplete.
Dawson first said he was "a little bit concerned" about the absence of the immigration information.
Later he called his concerns "very grave." He asked again for "any and all documents that are relevant to the child's immigration status."
"I want it," he said. "I need it."
"Judge," said Shayan Elahi, the Orlando attorney of the girl's father, "that can happen this week."
The judge set another hearing for Oct. 23.
This story started as a case of a missing person. Rifqa, 17, ran away from her family's apartment in Westerville, Ohio, in the Columbus suburbs.
That was in July. She was found in August in Orlando, in the home of Christian evangelical pastors Blake and Beverly Lorenz.
She was taken into custody by the state Department of Children and Families and put with a different foster family.
At that point the question was jurisdiction: Florida or Ohio?
Dawson established emergency jurisdiction, buying time for authorities to look into her allegations that her father abused her and also the validity of her fears that she might be killed.
Authorities in both states have found no evidence of abuse and have called her fears unfounded.
Under interstate agreements, the judge in Florida needed a case in Ohio in which to cede jurisdiction. The girl's parents opened a dependency case in Ohio, which led to Tuesday's hearing. A judge in Ohio said over the phone in court that the case should be sent back to Columbus.
The two Orlando attorneys for the parents agreed with that. So did the attorneys for DCF.
The girl's pro bono Orlando attorney, John Stemberger, said the case should stay in Florida, saying Rifqa wants it to.
Bartholomew said she was not as concerned with where the case was heard, but she was adamant on several points: a psychological evaluation should be done on Rifqa in Florida; she needs to finish her semester of schoolwork; and the immigration questions need to be resolved.
Attorneys in this case can't talk publicly — there are gag orders in both states — so they can't address her immigration status directly.
Neither can immigration officials. It's not a public record.
"Just like a medical record," said Ana Santiago, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
As for its relevance, or lack of relevance, in a case like this?
"That's a question I'd definitely have to run by our attorneys," said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "These types of things, everything's evaluated on a case-by-case basis."
Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.