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The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

The following blog post is by Center for Global Justice intern Natasha Delille, who is working on immigration and protection of children with Gardner & Mendoza, PC.

This summer, I have been interning at Gardner & Mendoza (G&M), an immigration and criminal law firm in Virginia Beach. Among other things, G&M takes on special immigrant juvenile status (“SIJS”) cases. During my time at the firm, I have learned about the complexities of SIJS cases. Similar to all immigration cases, SIJS cases are more complex than they seem. Obtaining SIJ status involves multiple stages of review by both state officials and federal immigration officers.

First, a juvenile must secure a special findings order from a state juvenile court. The special order must state that the State juvenile court has found that the child meets all of the SIJS requirements listed above, except that the child must be under the age of 18. Obtaining this special order is probably the most difficult step in the process because many judges are unfamiliar with SIJS and do not understand the juvenile court’s role in the process. Fortunately, in the Tidewater area, local judges recently attended a SIJS seminar that educated them on SIJS and the intersection between immigration law and family law.

Second, the special order, along with a petition for SIJS, is sent to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which determines whether to accept or reject the order and thus grant SIJ status. Once granted SIJS, an applicant can apply eligible to adjust his/her status to Lawful Permanent Resident status (LPR). If granted LPR, the child will be eligible for a work permit, driver’s license, subsidized health insurance, and financial aid for higher education.

Every day young children enter our nation through its ports and land borders. Many of these children have had to cross multiple borders to make it to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Out of fear and desperation, many children make this journey on their own. The children who enter a foreign nation without a parent or legal guardian are known as unaccompanied minors. This year, the majority of unaccompanied minors who have entered the United States have come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Upon arrival, unaccompanied minors are usually apprehended and taken to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.  Please keep in mind that these children are not given permanent residency or any other legal status. Every child who enters the United States without status is placed into deportation proceedings even if released to a family member or sponsor to wait for an immigration hearing.

One of the legal protections available to these children is SIJS.  This remedy prevents unaccompanied child from being deported to parent(s) who abused, abandoned, or neglected them.  The Immigration and Nationality Act allocates a percentage of immigrant visas to individuals considered “special immigrants,” including “special immigrant juveniles.” This means that there is a cap on the amount of children who can receive SIJ status.

The purpose of SIJS is to help unaccompanied, foreign children in the United States who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected and provide them with a green card. To qualify for SIJS the child must meet the following criteria:
1.      Must be under 21 years old at the time of filing;
2.      Must be unmarried;
3.      Must be declared a dependent upon the state;
4.      Reunification with one or both of the applicant’s parents must no longer be a viable option  due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a similar basis found under state law; and
5.      It is not in the best interest of the applicant to return to her home country.

The primary benefit of SIJS is that the child will become a lawful permanent resident (i.e., receive a “green card”). Once granted SIJS status, the recipient cannot petition for a green card for her birth parents, siblings, or other family members.

During my time at G&M, I have assisted on three SIJS cases. The stories of the children vary, yet there are three common factors the unaccompanied children share: (1) they are brave, (2) they have been abused, neglected, and/or abandoned, and (3) they have fled violence. I have been able to attend hearings at the local juvenile courts regarding the first step of the SIJS process. Later this month, I will also have the opportunity to attend an immigration hearing at the immigration court (EOIR) in Arlington. Please pray for our client and the thousands of other unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey to our nation.

INA § 203(b)(4)
INA §101(a)(27)(J); 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(27)(J).

This post was written by a Center for Global Justice student intern.  The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Regent University, Regent Law School, or the Center for Global Justice.