Is Immigration Reform Really Working to Help Unaccompanied Children Become Legal Workers and Citizens?

by Samantha Karpman

With immigration being such a prominent issue in recent politics, several Americans are starting to request a stricter policy when letting individuals into our borders.[1] One of the policies in question is the current implementation of the 2008 Special Immigrant Juvenile (hereafter referred to as “SIJ”) Status.[2] This law allows immigrants, who are otherwise considered illegal, to stay in the U.S. as a permanent resident.[3] Once the applicant turns twenty-one years old, he or she can apply for citizenship and use the time spent in the U.S. under SIJ status as credit toward the five-year residency requirement.[4] Coming from a family where my mom is a first generation American, I knew immigration law needed improvement; however, dealing with SIJ cases over the summer made me realize the effects of immigration reform on society.

To apply for SIJs, immigrants need to be younger than twenty-one years old,[5] [6] unmarried,[7] dependent on the Family Court,[8] and unable to return to their home country or either birth parent.[9] Successful SIJ claims are beneficial to labor law because they allow otherwise-illegal immigrants to obtain proper working permits and become legal residents earlier than any other immigration motion would allow. SIJ children are properly able to enter into employment contracts with businesses, without the limitations on location or type of work that is allowed.[10] Prior to the implementation of SIJ status, these children were “undercover workers.” Because of this, they typically would not enter into valid contracts with their employers, which would in turn subject them to grossly worse labor conditions. The only other viable option for immigrants in a SIJ-qualifying situation would be to apply for an asylum claim. Not only would they have to wait for at least 180 days to apply for a working permit,[11] but asylum claims tend to be slower to resolve (with most court dates being scheduled two or three years later than the date of the claim at the earliest) and have a much higher standard of proof than SIJ cases do.

A criticism of SIJs is that they are more lenient than any of the other immigration measures that individuals would normally seek for obtaining citizenship. Therefore, there have been instances where individuals have taken advantage of the requirements to obtain SIJ status. I saw an example of this, when an individual applying for SIJ status this summer tried to avoid the requirement of being a dependent of the Family Court. Usually, this is demonstrated by having a guardian in the U.S. However, this individual only stated the guardian’s address as a formality and was actually living in her boyfriend’s house.

SIJs are generally beneficial tools for the applicant to prevent labor exploitation as well as streamline the citizenship process. However, to reach intended policy goals, stricter adherence to the regulations is required so applicants cannot take adv

[1] Daniel Gonzalez, Surge in unaccompanied minors hits immigration courts, USA Today (Jul. 31, 2014), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/31/surge-unaccompanied-minors-courts/13437139.

[2] Elizabeth Llorente & Bryan Llenas, How A N.Y. Lawyer Is Getting Unaccompanied Minors Legal Status Using Controversial 2008 Law, Fox News Latino (Sept. 12, 2014) http://latino foxnews.com/latino/politics/2014/09/12/how-ny-lawyer-is-getting-unaccompanied-minors-legal-status-using-controversial.

[3] Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, Safe Passage Project, http://www.safepassageproject.org/ what-is-sij-status (last visited Sept. 11, 2014).

[4] Lisa Mendel-Hirsa, Understanding Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, Empire Justice Center (Jan. 16, 2010), http://www.empirejustice.org/issue-areas/immigrant-rights/access-to-status/understanding-special.html?print=t.

[5] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, http://www.uscis.gov/green-card/special-immigrant-juveniles/eligibility-sij-status/eligibility-status-sij (last visited Sept. 12, 2014).

[6] Michelle Mendez, GUEST BLOG: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Maryland Closes Gap with Federal Law to Expand Courts’ Jurisdiction, Benach Ragland LLP Lifted Lamp Blog (Aug. 25, 2014), http://liftedlamp.com/2014/08/25/guest-blog-special-immigrant-juvenile-status-maryland-closes-gap-with-federal-law-to-expand-courts-jurisdiction-by-michelle-mendez/ (stating that the age deadline for SIJ motions will be brought down from twenty-one to eighteen years old, starting on Oct. 1, 2014).

[7] See supra note 5.

[8] Id. (stating that Family Court is the New York version of Juvenile Court).

[9] Id., see also Debra L. Raskin, Immigration Justice Requires Legal Representation, 44th Street Blog (Sept. 15, 2014, 7:23 AM), http://www.nycbar.org/44th-street-blog/2014/09/15/immigration-

justice-requires-legal-representation-by-debra-l-raskin/ (stating that the reunification guideline due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect by the parent has been expanded to add the presence of dangerous conditions – more specifically gangs or human trafficking – to the list).

[10] Temporary Worker Visas, U.S. Dept. of State, http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/ employment/temporary.html (last visited Sept. 14, 2014) (referring to only some of the many specified limitations in a temporary working visa).

[11]Exec. Office for Immigration Review, The 180-Day Asylum EAD Clock Notice, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, http://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Humanitarian/Refugees%20%26%20Asylum/Asylum/Asylum_Clock_Joint_Notice.pdf (last visited Sept. 12, 2014).

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