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Created by Congress in 1990, the Special Immigrant Juvenile program seeks to aid foreign minors living in the United States. Minors unable to live with one or both of their parents in their home country due to abandonment, neglect, or abuse, may be eligible for special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS). SIJS permits a minor to remain in the United States and apply for legal permanent residency, and eventually, US citizenship.
Why is it important?
Last year, we wrote about the surge of Central American children crossing the US-Mexico border. While the number of unaccompanied minors entering the US has decreased, the motivations underlying their entry remain. Poor conditions in Central America, including poverty and gang-related violence, still prompt thousands of minors to flee their home countries every year. While some of these minors may be eligible for asylum (for individuals who have been persecuted on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group), U visas (for victims of certain crimes in the US who aid law enforcement in investigating or prosecuting the offender), or T visas (for victims of human trafficking), others are better candidates for SIJS.
What are the requirements?
✔ Be under twenty-one years old. In certain cases, only minors under eighteen years old may qualify;
✔ Be unmarried; and
✔ Reunification with one or both parents is not viable due to:
- Abuse: physical, mental, or emotional;
- Abandonment: leaving a child without necessary care;
- Neglect: leaving a child without food, water, or education, or other mistreatment; or
- Similar reasons under state law.
What is the process to obtain SIJS?
1: Find an immigration attorney. While an immigration attorney is not required, it is highly recommended due to the complexity of the application process. Furthermore, a recent study shows that seventy-three percent of unaccompanied minors represented by an attorney are allowed to remain in the US. In comparison, only fifteen percent of those not represented by an attorney are allowed to remain in the US. For those unable to afford an attorney, there are some attorneys who take on SIJS cases pro bono.
2: File a petition in state court. The court must establish the following determinations, usually in the context of a custody or guardianship case:
✔ The minor is dependent on the court, or must be placed in the legal custody of a state agency, private agency, or individual;
✔ 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 is not in the best interest of the child to return to their home country.
3: Once the state court has made the required determinations, minors may apply for special immigrant juvenile status through US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). This requires the completion of Form I-360. There is no filing fee for this application.
4: Once minors have received approval of their SIJS petition, they may apply for permanent residency. Depending on the circumstances, minors may do so either in front of an immigration judge or through USCIS (if they were previously in removal proceedings and have had those proceedings terminated). Either option requires the completion of Form I-485. Minors may submit Form I-912 to obtain a fee waiver for this application.
When eligible, SIJS recipients who have already obtained permanent residency can apply for citizenship with Form N-400. In general, to be eligible for naturalization, the SIJS recipient must be over the age of eighteen and have been a legal permanent resident for at least five years, among other requirements. The naturalized SIJS recipient may petition for their siblings to come to the US, but cannot petition for their parents.