Our client Manuel is a sixteen year-old boy who grew up in rural Guatemala with his mother, father, and eight siblings. Manuel did not have a good relationship with his parents. They were not affectionate with him and beat him almost daily with belts and switches. They often beat him for studying instead of working.
From the age of five, Manuel’s parents forced him to work long hours and gave him responsibilities inappropriate for a young child, such as cutting firewood with a machete. During the week, he worked the land near his house from 1:00 p.m. until dark. On the weekends, he worked in construction. From November to January, Manuel traveled to coffee fincas (i.e., estates) to work, where he was paid the equivalent of $3.00 a day.
When Manuel was twelve-years-old, he was at a construction site when a piece of debris sliced his leg open to the bone. Despite the severity of his injury, his parents did not provide him with medical care. Instead, they gave him rubbing alcohol and a piece of gauze to put on the wound. Although he was able to stop the bleeding, Manuel was unable to walk for three weeks. Today he has limited use of his right leg.
When Manuel was thirteen years-old, his father told him that he would no longer pay for him to attend school. In order to continue with his studies, Manuel went by himself to live and work at coffee fincas. It took him six months to earn enough money to pay for his school tuition. When he returned home, his parents said he should go back to work. A few weeks later, Manuel’s father kicked him out of the house. With nowhere to go, Manuel traveled through Mexico to the United States in hopes of finding his cousin Edgar, who treated Manuel with kindness when Manuel was a young child and lived somewhere in Virginia.
Immigration officials apprehended Manuel near the southern border after he entered the United States without inspection. They transferred him to a shelter operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. A social worker at the shelter was able to locate Edgar. Edgar agreed to have Manuel released into his custody. Today, Manuel lives with Edgar, Edgar’s wife, and their daughter in Northern Virginia. Manuel is currently enrolled in high school and makes straight As. He hopes to attend college after graduation. His cousin Edgar provides for him not only financially, but also emotionally. Manuel says that for the first time, he understands what it feels like to be loved.
Since arriving in the United States, Manuel’s parents have not spoken to him. Edgar obtained sole legal and physical custody of Manuel. The juvenile court order included findings that Manuel was abused, abandoned, and neglected by both of his parents and that it is not in his best interest to return to Guatemala. Manuel is now eligible to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status.
What Is Special Immigrant Juvenile Status?
Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status is an immigration benefit designed for children like Manuel who have been abused, abandoned, and/or neglected by one or both of their parents and who cannot return to their country of origin. A child granted SIJ status by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) becomes eligible to apply for permanent residence (a “Green Card”) and if granted, can remain in the United States.
Who Is Eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status?
A child is eligible for SIJ status if he or she is under 21 years of age, unmarried, physically present in the United States, and has a qualifying “juvenile court” order.
A qualifying juvenile court must include the following findings:
- The child is dependent on the court, or legally committed to or placed under the custody of either a state agency or department, or an individual or entity appointed by a juvenile court;
- Reunification with one or both of the child’s parents is not viable due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a similar basis under state law; and
- It would not be in the child’s best interest to be returned to his or her country of origin.
The first finding applies to children in the state’s child welfare system (for example foster care). It applies to children like Manuel who have been placed in the sole custody of a non-parent, such as a cousin like Edgar. It also applies to children placed in the sole custody of one parent when the other parent has abused, abandoned, and/or neglected him or her.
WARNING: In Washington, D.C. and Virginia, a child generally cannot obtain the qualifying juvenile court order after age eighteen.In Maryland, you can obtain the qualifying juvenile court order until age twenty-one as long as the qualifying abuse, abandonment, or neglect occurred before age eighteen.If you may qualify for SIJ status, it is extremely important that you obtain a juvenile court order before you “age-out”.
If you have already aged-out, you may still qualify for other types of immigration benefits, such as asylum or a U visa. You should meet with an immigration attorney as soon as possible to make sure that you do not lose the opportunity to apply for other forms of relief.
The second required finding is that family reunification is not possible due to abuse, abandonment, and/or neglect based on the definitions of these terms under state law. For example, in Manuel’s case, the juvenile court decided that in Virginia, it is considered abuse, abandonment, and/or neglect to beat a child almost daily for studying instead of working, to force a child to work long hours beginning at the age of five, to expose a young child to dangerous work activities inappropriate for his age, to send a thirteen year-old to a coffee estate to work for six months without any adult supervision, to deny a child the right to attend school, to kick a child out on the street when he has no place to go, and to refuse to financially or emotionally support him. It may also be considered abuse, abandonment, and/or neglect to send a young child to the United States with a coyote (i.e., human smuggler) without a parent or guardian or to fail to protect a child from harm at the hands of gangs such as MS-13.
The third required finding is that it is not in the child’s best interest to return to his or her country of origin. In Manuel’s case, the juvenile court decided that it was not in his best interest to return to Guatemala because there was nowhere for him to live. Manuel’s parents refused to allow him to remain in their home. The juvenile court found that it was in Manuel’s best interest to remain in the United States with his cousin Edgar who has provided a safe and nurturing environment for Manuel and supports his education.
How Do You Apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and Lawful Permanent Residence?
The first step is to obtain a juvenile court order that contains the required factual findings. The second step is to apply to USCIS for SIJ status by filing a Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, and supporting documents including the juvenile court order. The final step is to apply for Lawful Permanent Residence by filing a Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, and supporting documents, and any related applications such as a Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, a Form I-601, Application for Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility, and/or a Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver.
Attorney Shira Renee Zeman, Esq., represents Clients seeking SIJ status in Maryland and Virginia. Attorney Rachael Elizabeth Petterson, Esq., represents Clients seeking SIJ status in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.