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Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: an Overview

Immigrant child walks with her backpack on the road

Children without the care of a parent, and undocumented immigrants, are among the most vulnerable people who encounter the American court system. Most vulnerable of all are abused, abandoned, or neglected children who are undocumented and subject to removal. According to a recent report on immigration, nearly one-third of all new immigration court cases are juveniles under the age of 18. Roughly 12% of all new cases are age four or younger. Congress created the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) to protect vulnerable children who would otherwise be subject to removal and returned to a place where they would continue to be subjected to neglect, abuse, and/or otherwise abandoned by their natural parents.

What is Special Immigrant Juvenile Status?

Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is a federal law that allows undocumented children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents to have a path to lawful permanent resident (green card) status in the United States. Originally created to help children in the state foster care system, the program has been expanded to include other children under the jurisdiction of state courts, such as those under a guardianship.

As anyone who has been involved in any court proceeding knows, there can be a lot of red tape and frustration involved. This is especially true when there are multiple courts involved. Navigating the American court system can be stressful and confusing even for those who are experienced in legal matters and for whom English is a first language. Most of the children who qualify for SIJS have neither of those advantages.

SIJS requires coordination between the state court dependency process and the immigration system to provide immigration protection to this most vulnerable group of children. The goal of the process is to protect abused, abandoned, and/or neglected children by providing a path for these undocumented children to become lawful permanent residents of the United States.

Who is Eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status?

The rules about eligibility for SIJS are found at 8 USC § 1101(a)(27)(J). A person may be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status if they are:

  • Under 21 years old;
  • Unmarried;
  • Declared dependent upon a juvenile court. Usually, this means that a state juvenile court has jurisdiction over a matter regarding the child, such as foster care, guardianship, or custody
  • Unable to be reunified with one or both parents due to abuse, abandonment, neglect, or similar grounds under state law.
  • Needing to remain in the United States because it is not in their best interest to return to their country of national origin or in which they last habitually resided.

A state court cannot grant a child a legal immigration status; only USCIS is able to do that. But Congress has judged that a state juvenile court is in a better position than an immigration court to determine whether a child meets the criteria for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

It’s important to note that once the state court makes the necessary SIJ findings, this is the end of a child’s immigration journey; it is only a step. Once a child has been deemed eligible for SIJ by the state court, he or she is immediately eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident status, and should do so. Having a green card will allow the child to remain in the United States indefinitely, to work when he or she is old enough, and to build a life in this country.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status

The primary advantage of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is obvious: it protects a vulnerable child from the person(s) who abused, neglected, and/or abandoned them by giving them the opportunity to adjust status to become a lawful permanent resident. With a green card, the child can live and work in the United States, travel outside the country and return, receive certain government benefits (such as Title IV student financial aid), and may eventually apply to become a U.S. citizen. There are other benefits of SIJS as well.

Once a child has filed for an adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident, he or she is eligible for work authorization while USCIS is considering the application. Of course, many of the children who are eligible for SIJS are too young to legally work under state law. However, it may still be helpful to have a work permit, as that document can be used as a valid form of identification.

There are, unfortunately, also disadvantages to Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. A child who is granted SIJS is no longer a child of their parents for immigration purposes. If the child becomes a green card holder and then a U.S. citizen, they cannot later use their immigration status to help their parents receive lawful status.

If the child has a criminal history or other factors that could make them a security risk, applying for SIJS may not be the best option. An application for SIJS notifies USCIS that the child is present, without permission, in the United States. If the child is not granted SIJS, there exists the rare but real possibility that USCIS could use the information it has received in a removal proceeding against the child.

If you have questions about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or about the process involving state court proceedings and immigration proceedings, contact our law office to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Blog, Immigration Law