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New guidance released to shore up juvenile immigrant program

They will help abused, neglected minors qualify for green cards

Petitioners await at a naturalization ceremony  at the National Archives.
Petitioners await at a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will consider granting deferred action to minors awaiting green cards through their Special Immigrant Juvenile Status but who can’t obtain a visa because of existing backlogs.

Deferred action status would shield those immigrants from deportation and allow them to work legally. The move was among policy changes USCIS unveiled Monday to strengthen the SIJS program, which grants protection to immigrant children who crossed the border unlawfully and have been abused, abandoned or neglected.

“Due to ongoing visa number unavailability, the protection that Congress intended to afford SIJs through adjustment of status is often delayed for years, leaving this especially vulnerable population in limbo,” the USCIS memo said.

In a separate final rule released Monday, USCIS introduced a slew of policy changes to the SIJS program, including implementation of statutory changes made to the program in previous years.

The final rule updates current regulations to clarify SIJ eligibility criteria, including an age-out provision that protects petitioners who turn 21 while their application is pending. It also updates evidentiary requirements used to grant SIJ status to “improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the program.”

The rule also clarifies that petitioners cannot be required to contact their alleged abuser while USCIS makes a decision in their case.

“Today, we are taking action to help immigrant children in the U.S. who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and offer them protection to help rebuild their lives,” USCIS Director Ur Jaddou said in a statement Monday. “These policies will provide humanitarian protection to vulnerable young people for whom a juvenile court has determined that it is in their best interest to remain in the United States.”

More than 44,000 immigrant children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico are waiting in a years-long backlog to receive green cards under the SIJS program, according to a December report released by a coalition of advocacy groups.

Children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala waited more than four years on average between the time they applied for SIJS to the time they received a green card in fiscal 2020 through April 2021, according to government data compiled by the End SIJS Backlog Coalition. For Mexican children, the average wait time was 2.6 years; for children from other countries, it was 1.4 years.

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