A group of Democrats introduced a bill Thursday to simplify immigration procedures for foreign-born minors who have been abandoned, abused or neglected.
The bill, led by Reps. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), would exempt children in Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) from country caps or quotas that can delay their immigration proceedings.
“As a new father and the son of immigrants, I refuse to sit idly by as immigrant children and teens who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected are left vulnerable to homelessness, wage theft, trafficking, and deportation because of an administrative backlog,” said Gomez.
Any children who are accepted into SIJS status are automatically eligible to apply for permanent residency, also known as a green card, but backlogs have gummed up that process since 2016.
The bill would essentially return the SIJS program to its pre-2016 status, allowing the Department of Homeland Security to extend SIJS and green cards more or less in tandem for vulnerable children of all nationalities.
According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, SIJS minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras first began to see green card backlogs in spring 2016, and by that summer, “visas also ran out for children from Mexico and India.”
Those backlogs are due to a limit on how many immigrants can currently receive a green card through SIJS and on what percentage of visas can be allocated to nationals of any one country.
“Placing vulnerable immigrant youth in employment-based visa backlogs and subjecting them to arbitrary per-country caps makes no sense,” said Lofgren.
Eligibility for SIJS is limited to minors “who have been subject to state juvenile court proceedings related to abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a similar basis under state law,” according to DHS.
For eligibility, minors must meet three criteria: be declared a dependent of the court, be eligible for foster care, and have the court determine it’s not in the minor’s best interest to return to their home country.
According to the SIJS Backlog Coalition, children from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala can be forced to wait two to five years after receiving SIJS to get their green card.
“It is unconscionable and completely avoidable that children who have already been granted SIJS are trapped in a years-long limbo that endangers their lives, all because SIJS was miscategorized in the visa system. It makes no sense for these children to be competing for visas with immigrants seeking employment-based status,” said Rachel Davidson, director of the End SIJS Backlog Coalition.
In 2022, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) updated the program’s regulations and announced a case-by-case deferral program for SIJS youth who were wait-listed for a green card, meaning some applicants could be issued temporary papers if their applications were delayed by backlogs.
And this year, the State Department changed the way it interprets country quotas regarding Central American countries, raising the possibility that some SIJS nationals of those countries could avoid being caught up in those caps.
Yet the process to pair SIJS and green cards remains convoluted.
According to a 2021 report published by the American Bar Association, the added hurdles have signified a departure from the “protective purpose” of SIJS.
That need for protection is necessary, according to the ABA post, both from dangers in the minors’ countries of birth and from immigration enforcement in the United States.
In one case described by the ABA, an SIJS applicant was repatriated to Guatemala in 2019 despite having received a court injunction prohibiting his removal from the United States a year prior and was subjected to gang violence in Guatemala.
The minor was able to return to the United States through further court action and was granted SIJS but waitlisted for a green card due to the caps — lawyers for the minor were forced to file a habeas corpus lawsuit to prevent a second deportation.
“Despite the government’s approval for humanitarian relief, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] argued they could deport [the minor] yet again because although he was eligible to obtain a green card, there was not a green card immediately available for him, and he would need to wait a while,” wrote Dalia Castillo-Granados, director of the Children’s Immigration Law Academy, a project of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration.
The SIJS House bill has a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto last week.
“As public servants and public policymakers, we have no more core responsibility and duty than to protect the most vulnerable among us,” said Espaillat.
“We must protect our immigrant youth, who are disproportionately susceptible to economic and security concerns, including a lack of accessible child care, targeted crime, and increasing rates of poverty,” he added.
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