Undocumented immigrant children who end up in foster care could take advantage of a wealth of opportunities, if only the agency responsible for them would do the paperwork. A green card, which grants permanent residency, and other substantial benefits are available to undocumented juveniles who are abused, neglected and abandoned – but only if they are given Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).
Dozens of kids in the city’s child welfare system have been identified as potentially eligible for the special status, but lawyers acting on their behalf fear that many more are simply overlooked. This week, City Council is scheduled to consider some ways to improve the situation.
In an appearance before the Council’s Committee on Immigration earlier this month, the lawyers urged committee members to require that the city Administration for Children’s Services develop a system-wide strategy for identifying undocumented children and helping them to get timely immigration assistance for SIJS. The window of eligibility is open only as long as undocumented children are in the child welfare system under ACS protection.
“We have no way of knowing how many kids are falling through cracks,” said Myra Elgabry, Director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at Lawyers for Children. “This is an opportunity they have a right to, and it absolutely ends at 21.”
Aging out of the system without being identified means the youngsters forfeit access to a privileged status – potentially including work programs and financial aid for college – that could improve their lives after leaving foster care. Missing the application deadline exposes them to the risk of deportation to their country of origin, a country they may not even remember.
The rationale for the special immigrant juvenile category is that abused, neglected or abandoned undocumented juveniles can’t go back to their families. A Family Court judge must have already advised against reunification with one or both parents before the petition can be processed. Foster care agencies would identify undocumented kids and refer them to public service lawyers, who are funded by ACS to provide immigration counseling and file SIJS applications.
ACS Director of Immigrant Services Mark Lewis told Council members earlier this month that the department has recently taken significant steps to identify children who might be eligible for SIJS. In 2009, ACS began a file-by-file review of children in its care that turned up 110 previously unidentified, more than twice as many as discovered in a normal year, Lewis said. The newly discovered files will be referred to immigration counselors, he said.
Advocates say those numbers confirm why ACS needs to implement a standardized system for identifying SIJS-eligible children. Four legal aid groups asked the Council to make the bill more stringent, requiring ACS to hold mandatory training on immigration issues for case workers. They urged Council to mandate data systems that would allow the department to track immigration status. Two of the groups complained that for several years they had been asking ACS to no avail to add a “country of birth” field to children’s case files.
In an e-mail, ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein said that the department “supports the intent” of the measure and “will work with the Council to come to an agreement on the best way to legislate the bill.”
“This is a human rights issue,” said Daniel Dromm, chair of the Council’s Immigration Committee and sponsor of the bill. “It’s what this country is supposed to be about: protecting the most vulnerable among us.”