Immigrant status has long been a hot-button issue, particularly now with President-Elect Donald's Trump's promise to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Many local law enforcement agencies have released public statements saying that they will not help Trump in rounding up illegal immigrants, since immigration has always been a federal issue. Indeed, immigration issues are generally handled by federal agencies such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. There is, however, one aspect of immigration that is handled by both state and federal agencies. .
Family courts play an essential role in determining whether an immigrant child has suffered abuse or neglect, or face serious danger in their home country, which would merit protection under the Special Juvenile Immigrant (SIJ) program. Those who are granted SIJ status can apply for a green card, which would allow them to work and stay in the United States, and eventually obtain US citizenship. SIJ status individuals can never petition for a green card on behalf of their parents, but they can apply for a green card on behalf of their siblings once they attain US citizenship.
While SIJ status is ultimately granted by a federal agency, the process begins at the state level. First, the juvenile would petition the family court to make factual findings that would qualify him or her for consideration by the SIJ program. The family court must determine that the juvenile cannot be reunited with one or both parents due to abuse or neglect, and/or whether it goes against the juvenile's best interests to return to his or her home country. The court must make their finding based on US laws, not child welfare laws in the juvenile's home country.
In addition, the court must take care to only determine whether there were enough circumstances for the consideration of SIJ status. It is not up to the courts to deny an applicant's right to apply for SIJ status, since that decision is ultimately up the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Furthermore, it is not up the state courts to rule on an applicant's true intent, which may be obtaining permanent residency in the US, rather than fleeing an abusive parent or threatening circumstances in the home country. This is also up to the USCIS, to whom the juvenile would submit a petition for SIJ status once they obtain the special findings order from the court.
Although the family courts have limited involvement in the SIJ program, their ruling is undeniably the most important step in the process. Petitioning the family courts for a special finding order is a complicated process, often involving separate actions such as a custody motion. Thus, it's in your best interest to work with an experienced attorney, who can help you make navigate the family court system. For more information on the SIJ program, please speak with the family law attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.