Recent changes to Maryland law that take effect on October 1, 2014, bring state law into alignment with existing federal law, and benefit a population that has often fallen through the cracks: abandoned, neglected, or abused young immigrants between the ages of 18 and 21. The changes expand the jurisdiction of Maryland equity courts and allow them to offer protection and support to those young adults who are considered to have Special Immigrant Juvenile status.
Special Immigrant Juvenile status is a creation of federal law that helps certain undocumented children to obtain legal permanent residency. In order for a child to be granted Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status, a state court must have the authority to enter an order containing certain findings. USCIS then uses the order and findings to determine a person's status as an SIJ. For specific information regarding SIJ eligibility and obtaining SIJ status, please see Special Immigrant Juvenile Status - State Procedure and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status - Federal Procedure.
Under federal law, anyone under 21 can apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile status. However, prior to the the enactment of Chapter 96, Maryland courts only had authority to make factual findings regarding SIJ eligibility for people up to age 18. This resulted in a class of vulnerable people--technically adults, but often still in need of guidance and support--who could not receive the protection they needed.
What the new Maryland law means is that qualifying immigrant juveniles may have a guardian or custodian appointed up until they reach the age of 21, as federal law intended. Perhaps even more important, the new law recognizes that abused, abandoned and neglected children deserve protection whether they are in foster care, a parent's custody, or in the care of a guardian.
Chapter 96 becomes effective as of October 1, 2014.
The primary benefit of the Maryland juvenile courts' expanded jurisdiction is to that group of young people, aged 18 to 21, who previously could not receive SIJ status because no Maryland court could make the necessary factual findings. These young people, now legally designated "children" by the change in law, are eligible to have guardians or custodians appointed.
This is crucial, because children do not become magically able to navigate the world as functioning adults on their eighteenth birthdays. This is especially true for the children who are eligible for SIJ status; some of these children have experienced unimaginable abuse and privation. By allowing this particular population to remain "children" under the law, Maryland is giving these children the opportunity to remain in a nurturing environment under the guidance of caring adults. Shutting off the option of protection and guidance from a stable, supportive guardian consigns many children at this critical age to a life of struggle. The ability to remain eligible for SIJ allows these children the chance to pursue education and job training and to become productive adults.
Maryland benefits from the change in law as well. Giving these children the support and protection they need means they are far more likely to grow up to contribute to Maryland society, not become a drain on it.
If you would like more information about this area of the law, or about helping a child to pursue SIJ status, contact Howard County, MD immigration lawyer Van T. Doan.