As advocates for immigrants, we work with some difficult cases, including matters involving humanitarian-based relief for children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. Unfortunately, there is an immigration quota system and a huge backlog of visas for children under this special category that is making that advocacy even more difficult than it already was.
One of those young teens we work with, we will call her Mary, smiles confidently when asked about her future. She’s an inquisitive, spirited teenager with plans to study engineering. Like many kids her age, she’s thinking about her hopes and dreams as school lets out. But Mary’s assured demeanor and thoughtfulness belie her own difficult personal history, and Kafka-esque bureaucratic barriers to achieving her goals.
Mary is one of nearly 675,000 children deemed maltreated each year. In 12th grade, she was removed from her home after disclosing her father’s abuse to police. Her father fled with her mother and siblings, and Mary hasn’t seen them since. Juvenile courts like the one handling Mary’s case recognize that providing safety, stability, and pathways to higher education and employment for youth who have been maltreated is crucial to their long-term well-being. But for abused and neglected children like Mary who were brought to this country at a young age and don’t yet have lawful immigration status, an outdated federal law provision means she will have to wait years to achieve those aspirations.
Abused children like Mary are often eligible for a form of humanitarian immigration relief called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). Enacted in 1990, SIJS provides a potential pathway to lawful permanent residence (green card) for children under juvenile court jurisdiction due to parental abuse, neglect, or abandonment. The problem for Mary is that SIJS visas are categorized as “employment-based,” an administrative designation that has created a two to three-year backlog for approximately 26,000 abused and neglected children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. When a country accounts for 7 percent of visas issued in this category, applications from that country become backlogged. Special Immigrant Juveniles from backlogged countries must wait years to apply for permanent residence. Children are not eligible to apply for work permits until SIJS visas are available allowing them to apply for permanent residence. And, they are not eligible for federal financial aid for college until that permanent residence is granted. Despite having been approved for humanitarian relief, they remain at grave risk of detention and deportation, and basic juvenile court goals of safety and stability for them remain unrealized.
The potential fixes are straightforward. Through minor amendments in the SIJS law or agency regulations, SIJS beneficiaries could be exempted from visa limitations, given protection from detention and removal while applications are pending, and allowed to obtain work permits while they await decisions on their cases. Though less durable long-term, an executive action by the Biden administration could designate SIJS recipients as eligible for deferred action, providing protection and employment authorization. None of these fixes require major immigration reform, and all of them eliminate the problematic barrier to SIJS’s basic humanitarian goal of providing safety and stability to abused and neglected immigrant children.
When SIJS functions as intended, the results are inspiring. Kingsley is a young man from Nigeria who obtained SIJS at 17. At eight, Kingsley left his abusive home and found shelter at a church. He eventually immigrated to Arkansas, but his U.S. living situation was also dangerous, and Kingsley entered foster care. Because of SIJS, Kingsley is now a U.S. citizen and a college graduate. While that accomplishment alone demonstrates the potential of a functioning system, Kingsley has done much more with his opportunity. Two years ago, he created King’s Hope Foundation, a charitable organization that runs a basketball camp in Nigeria for impoverished and abused children.
Not every SIJS beneficiary will establish a charitable organization, but every child deserves the chance to pursue a dream. Mary does her best to focus on a bright future. She has lived in the U.S. since she was a baby, yet her undocumented status haunts her. She confronts daily the reality of possible deportation, even as a foster child with SIJS. With those few changes to existing law and policies, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security could cut the red tape that’s causing these children additional unnecessary harm. The establishment of SIJS was driven by child welfare principles; let’s fix it so those honorable intentions can be realized.