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Green card eligibility restricted for abused and abandoned youth

As the Trump administration works toward limiting overall immigration to the United States, including by unaccompanied minors, it appears to have drawn back from an important humanitarian program called Special Immigrant Juvenile status (SIJ).

The New York Times recently reported that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was applying a new interpretation of the law around SIJ and denying applications from otherwise qualifying applicants between the ages of 18 and 21.

The new interpretation may apply only in New York or states with similar processes for making SIJ determinations. Unfortunately, it's hard to say since a USCIS spokesperson has denied that the agency has issued any new policy directives or guidance on SIJ adjudications.

Meant to help youth under 21 who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by parents, SIJ is authorized as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 and was expanded in 2008. To qualify, applicants must first obtain a ruling from a juvenile court saying that they have indeed been abused, neglected or abandoned and declaring them dependent or appoint a guardian. Only then can they apply for SIJ status.

However, the jurisdiction of some state juvenile courts ends at age 18, at least for the initiation of cases. That may have prompted the USCIS to determine that people between 18 and 21 cannot obtain the requisite juvenile court orders. However, people between the ages of 18 and 21 can be assigned guardians by the juvenile courts -- which some experts say is all that is required for SIJ.

Over at least the past decade, Times sources say, otherwise qualifying SIJ applications involving people between 18 and 21 have routinely been approved. They attribute the change to hardliners in the Trump administration who fear that these applications are open to fraud -- or that applicants may be gang members.

Other experts say that the policy appeared to be slowly changing during the previous administration, although the change has been more pronounced recently. This could be because of the dramatic increase in SIJ applications by children affected by widespread violence in Central America since 2014. In 2017, 11,335 abused, neglected and abandoned children were approved for SIJ. That compares to only 1,590 in 2010.

If you are under 21 and think you might qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile status -- even if you're afraid you will be turned down -- it's worthwhile to speak with an immigration lawyer. Information you share with your attorney is held strictly confidential.

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