Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Making Children Priority One
In any context, abuse and abandonment is a heartbreaking experience for the children and families it affects. While therapy and psychological treatment may help begin to heal the wounds abuse leaves behind, undocumented children face an additional challenge when their abuse is discovered by child welfare officials or other government offices. Without legal status in the United States, or an official nationality or country of citizenship, these children face double abandonment, first from their family of origin and then from the only country many of them have ever known.
In an attempt to help abused, neglected, and abandoned immigrant children, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) created a special classification to aid such youngsters. Eligibility for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status requires an official order from a state court with the authority to make decisions regarding children’s care and custody, frequently called "family court," "juvenile court," "orphan’s court," or other similar names. Most of our cases, here at Bretz & Coven, are filed in the Family Courts in New York City: The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Once the process is complete, qualified children will receive a green card evidencing their permanent resident status in the U.S., which represents the first step on the road to citizenship.
The NY Family Court or other Family Court order required for SIJ status must contain specific findings indicating the following:
- The child is a dependent of the court or a ward of a state/private agency or person
- The child’s best interest is not to return to his or her country of origin
- The child cannot be returned to a parent’s custody because of abandonment, abuse, neglect or similar reasons
In addition to the court order, eligible children must be under 21 years of age and physically present in the U.S. when the proper form (Form I-360) is filed. To be eligible, applicants must also not be currently married, divorced (including annulment), or widowed. SIJ applicants must keep in mind that if they receive their green card through this program, they may never petition for a green card for their parents and may only file petitions for brothers and sisters once they are already citizens. The requirements for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status are codified at 8 U.S.C. 1101 § (a)(27).
Children who have suffered from abuse, neglect, abandonment, or similar treatment at the hands of only one parent are still eligible for SIJ status, even if they are living with their other parent. In a recent Bretz & Coven case, a young native of Ecuador who was living with her mother in the United States was found to be eligible for SIJ status due to the fact that her father abandoned her at a young age and was never a part of her life. She is now eligible to receive a green card and in five years can naturalize by submitting a citizenship application.
Many Special Immigrant Juvenile applicants who have been abused by one or more parents are either living with their non-abusive parent, or a guardian. It is important to note that this parent or guardian need not have any legal status in the United States in order to serve as a formal guardian in family court. Bretz & Coven has handled several cases where the guardian in family court did not have any status. This does not affect the outcome of the child’s Special Immigrant Juvenile case in any way. However, as stated earlier, a child who receives SIJ status cannot petition for a green card for their parents, even the non-abusive parent with whom they may live.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status may be available in a wide variety of scenarios. Bretz & Coven has handled cases where both of the children’s parents were deceased and the child had previously been adopted. Bretz & Coven has also handled cases for children who were turning 21 in several months, in which case it is possible to file an “Order to Show Cause” in family court to expedite the hearing. Bretz & Coven, represented both of these children pro bono.
While USCIS programs such as SIJ status can ostensibly help abused, neglected, and abandoned children, immigrant youth still need the assistance of capable legal advocates. To aid in this effort, organizations such as the Immigrant Children's Legal Program, a U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants program, help children identify their options and start their new life.
As with all immigration issues, those assisting SIJ program applicants should seek the advice and guidance of an immigration attorney with regard to any USCIS application.