In this political climate, when even such a narrowly applicable law such as the Dream Act repeatedly misses passage by a few votes, and children in Alabama are afraid to go to school, children and teenagers often find themselves trapped in the status of “illegal” or even face removal proceedings. Some entered when they were young, without even a memory of their native country. Many came to rejoin one or both parents, who may be legal permanent residents or in temporary protected status, but with no way of conferring that status to their children. Given the crippling consequences of separating a child from immediate family members, it is extremely important that the family becomes aware of all possible remedies. Even though a child’s length of stay in the US, coupled with academic excellence, is not an immigration remedy in itself right now, there may be another option.
Children under the age of twenty-one who are unmarried and have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents in the past may be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (“SIJ”). This is important for children both in and outside the immigration court process. The most straightforward scenario involves a child abandoned by both parents. However, a 2008 law called the “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act” amended the immigration law to include children who have been abandoned or mistreated by only one parent, even if they are living with the other parent and that parent is undocumented. If these children are able to obtain a “special findings order” from a Family Court judge stating that they should not be reunited with a parent because of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, they can file a SIJ petition.
Children with an approved SIJ petition can have their immigration court case ended to apply for a green card before an immigration officer. Those who have never been in proceedings are even luckier, because they have practically nothing to lose from going through the SIJ process. Often times, a SIJ case is based on abandonment, for example, in the case of a child who has no contact from a parent for at least six months. However, it can even be based on unintended neglect–such as a parent’s inability to financially support the child, or psychological problems making it impossible to be a good parent. It is reassuring to know that children whose parent or parents have failed them may be able to get their green card, study in the U.S. and fulfill their dreams here.
Unfortunately, we are still waiting for the day when children will be able to apply for their green card because they were very young when they entered and show promise to our society through their academic performance and/or military service. However, while we wait for other pathways to open, some children may be able to have their immigration court proceedings terminated, with the right representation. The only thing that is certain is: an undocumented child should study, work when he or she is old enough and pay taxes, help their family and their community, and stay out of trouble. Let’s hope together that one day, no child in the U.S. ever has to feel “illegal,” or ever be afraid to go to school.