Tue. Jun 25th, 2024

The backlog of maltreated juvenile immigrants waiting for green cards, according to advocates, has grown.

By Jennifer Dec 4, 2023
Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico are lined up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Sept. 23 in Eagle Pass, Texas. Eric Gay / AP file

BY NBC NEWS

In the last two years, the backlog of cases involving young immigrants who have been abused or abandoned and

Are seeking green cards has more than doubled, according to a new analysis of government records conducted by advocacy groups and provided exclusively to NBC News.

The End SIJS Backlog Coalition and Tulane Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic revealed in a study released on Monday that more than 100,000 young individuals who were born outside of the nation and were given “special immigrant juvenile” statusβ€”which gives them a path to permanent residencyβ€”are currently waiting for green cards. The organizations claim the figure is more than the about 45,000 from 2021.

The law states that adolescents under 21 who have experienced “abuse, abandonment, or neglect by a parent” may be eligible for special immigrant juvenile status. Those who are designated may apply immediately for a green card, or lawful permanent residency.

According to Laila Hlass, co-director of Tulane Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic and co-author of the study, “Congress created this protection to really improve the lives of vulnerable immigrant children, and it’s not really working in the way it was supposed to.” “In fact, because of these waiting periods, it frequently makes the lives of children more uncertain.”

Using data from a Freedom of Information Act request and ensuing legal action, the report obtained from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asserts that as of March 1, over 107,000 young people from 151 countries “are trapped in a legal limbo, unable to obtain permanent protection even after being granted humanitarian status.” The young individuals in the research have been given special immigrant juvenile status, but they are not eligible to get green cards.

“They will need to wait a significant amount of time, perhaps even five years or longer, before they can pursue permanent residence through the issuance of a green card,” Hlass said.

The advocacy groups claim that because they lack the protections of lawful permanent residency, many are afraid of being deported and are unable to enroll in government health care or get educational support.

After waiting for a green card for the last year and a half, a Georgian immigrant with SIJ status said that he was beginning to lose hope that he would ever be allowed to reside in the nation lawfully.

“I am 22 years old, and I have had all of my plans put on hold indefinitely,” the young man said, requesting to be anonymous because he was worried about possible reprisals in his immigration case.

Before coming to the United States, he ran away from his physically abusive father and prejudice against him because he is an LGBTQ person. He said that just before leaving for the United States, he was beaten and admitted to the hospital after participating in a Pride march.

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“It feels like I escaped a lot of my issues with being accepted for who I was and all I had to go through with my family, but now I’m facing new, bigger issues,” said the individual. “It’s still excessive.”

The immigrant rights groups are urging Congress to act quickly to speed the processing of young immigrants’ applications for green cards and to give immigration authorities 180 days to make decisions on cases involving those demanding special status.

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U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services notes on its website that although it “generally” reviews applications for SIJ classification within 180 days, the same time frame “does not apply” in cases where a green card based on SIJ status is being granted.

A request for comment about the ongoing backlog was not swiftly answered by USCIS prior to the report’s release on Friday. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report’s findings on Monday.

Immigrant rights groups’ research indicates that young people face two challenges: first, obtaining authorization for their SIJ applications; and second, pursuing lawful permanent residence based on their status.

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According to the data, the average wait time for USCIS to approve a SIJS petition during the preceding five years was 337 days, almost twice as long as the 180-day authorized window for decision-making.

“While an improvement, the average time taken by USCIS to approve a case in the 2023 fiscal year is still 263 days, which is in violation of the law,” the research said.

Even if children are given SIJ status, the report said, “they will then have to wait years to be eligible to seek” lawful permanent residence, and the USCIS approval procedure for such cases “often takes years.”

The activists contend that the backlog is a result of the program’s annual limit on the total number of green cards that USCIS may issue, which is determined by nationality. SIJ status falls under the EB-4 visa for “special immigrants,” which also includes religious workers, foreign-stationed active and retired U.S. government personnel, and certain officials and staff members of international organizations.

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Immigration to the United States – Wikipedia

“These kids are now competing for visas with other folks who are coming to this country seeking work-related status, and that makes no sense for humanitarian protection to be in that same category,” said Rachel Davidson, co-author of the paper and director of the End SIJS Backlog Coalition.

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The data indicates that since 2016, young individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been disproportionately affected by this. In a late-March rule, the State Department updated its interpretation of the visa requirements for six countries in Central America.

In 2022, the Biden administration also released new regulations designed to make it easier for those with SIJ status to remain in the country and continue working while their cases are being handled.

Although proponents praise the changes, some believe they could have gone further. Consequently, they are pushing Congress to lift the ceiling on visas under the employment-based system to include the SIJ category.

“This is a completely solvable issue,” Davidson said.

In June, congressional Democrats submitted a bill that would “eliminate employment-based visa caps on abused, abandoned, and neglected children eligible for humanitarian status, and for other purposes.”

The bill’s House sponsors include Reps. Jimmy Gomez and Zoe Lofgren of California, and Adriano Espaillat of New York.

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“I cannot stand by while vulnerable immigrant children are left behind because of an administrative backlog,” Gomez told NBC News in a statement on Friday. “Homelessness, wage theft, human trafficking, and deportation are disproportionately likely outcomes for immigrant children and teens who have experienced abuse, neglect, or abandonment.”

By “cutting through red tape in the visa backlog,” Gomez said, the proposal would enable young, at-risk immigrants to start their lives in the country and make a living wage.

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The Republican-led House of Representatives has not yet addressed the matter.

By Jennifer

FIELD REPORTER ON DPUNIV

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