By Kelly Kidwell Hughes, Advocacy Intern
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) allows undocumented minors who have suffered abandonment, neglect, or abuse by a parent to become lawful permanent residents. To qualify, the child must have an order from a juvenile court demonstrating that he or she is dependent on the state and cannot be safely reunited with parents. Federal law allows children under the age of 21 to qualify, but many potential beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 21 are left out. Their state courts only have jurisdiction over children younger than 18, so they cannot obtain the necessary court order to apply to USCIS.
Michelle Mendez, an attorney with Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Washington, encountered many Maryland children unable to obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status because the state’s juvenile courts did not have jurisdiction over children once they turned 18. “We found ourselves representing many minors at risk of ‘aging-out’ and then meeting even more minors who had lost the opportunity to obtain the SIJS factual findings predicate order solely because they had reached the age of 18,” Mendez said. To fix the problem, Catholic Charities partnered with various government and non-profit organizations to push for a state bill to expand the jurisdiction of Maryland’s juvenile courts by changing the Maryland Family Law definition of a “child” to include unmarried individuals younger than 21 (rather than 18).
The bill, H.B. 315 was backed by a diverse coalition including the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP), family law attorneys, and child welfare representatives. Mendez was able to garner support from diverse allies by portraying the bill a child welfare measure, rather than an immigration bill. “For the Maryland Public Defender, we emphasized the importance of a responsible adult in the lives of teenagers to keep them on the right track,” she said. “For the HPRP, we highlighted the cases where these minors were thrown out of the house once they turned 18. Then, we explained that the bill would help curb homelessness by allowing a judge to order a guardian or custodial parent to be responsible for the minor until that minor turns 21. This would allow teenagers more time to learn English, integrate, become acquainted with American society and, as a result, decrease their potential for homelessness.”
The bill passed in Maryland’s legislature without any opposing testimony, was signed into law in April, and goes into effect in October. New York has passed a similar bill, and other states are considering the issue. For advocates who would like to champion similar legislation, Mendez advises partnering with a legislator who has a track record of success and the respect of peers. “Keep your efforts as low-key as possible, and do not involve the media or any group who will divulge your bill to a wider audience,” she said. “Less is more with this type of bill. Many of us will want to reach out to traditional immigration allies, but those allies will often bring with them anti-immigration opposition.” Mendez also said it was important to carefully select individuals to testify in support of the bill. “They should represent different ethnic backgrounds to note the diversity in the class of beneficiaries,” she said. “We had a uniformed Marine Sergeant testify who, to no avail, sought to be the guardian of his 20-year-old sister who survived the earthquake in Haiti but was orphaned as a result.”
If you would like more information about seeking Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, visit USCIS’s website about the program. USCIS has also released a new resource about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status specifically for juvenile courts. For advocacy strategy assistance on this or any other state measure relating to immigration, including the development of resources specific to your state or campaign, please reach out to CLINIC’s State and Local Advocacy Attorney Jen Riddle at (301) 565-4807.