Judge Madeline Cox Arleo of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey today ordered the Department of Homeland Security to stop denying Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) to a class of eligible young immigrants. The agency had been refusing to provide this form of humanitarian relief to young people who were between 18 and 21 years old when they obtained child welfare findings from a state juvenile court, a necessary predicate to applying for SIJS. The court has ordered the agency to adjudicate SIJS petitions for this class of juveniles in conformity with federal and state law and to assess and correct past denials and other harms. In addition, on the consent of the government, the court ordered the agency to defer deporting juveniles in the class for six months.
The order arises out of a class action lawsuit filed by the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest at the end of April seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of four immigrant youths and all others similarly situated against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and leaders in these agencies.
The four young plaintiffs–immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala–each sought the protection of the New Jersey family court, which awarded custody to an adult family member. The family court also made certain findings related to SIJS (“SIJS findings”), including that the young people could not be safely reunified with one or both of their parents because of abuse, neglect, abandonment (or something similar) and that it was not in the best interest of the youth to be returned to his country of origin. Each plaintiff then applied to USCIS for SIJS, appending the state court order, as federal law requires.
In each case, USCIS denied or stated its intention to deny this relief. In each case, USCIS articulated the same two-part rationale: (1) the family court must have the authority to reunify the juvenile with the allegedly unfit parent, and (2) the New Jersey family court lacks such authority as to youth between their 18th and 21st birthdays. The federal court has now confirmed that USCIS is wrong on both counts and held the agency to its duty to defer to state courts on the issue of their jurisdiction under state law.
“USCIS’s arbitrary and capricious imposition of new eligibility requirements for SIJS has resulted in the delay and denial of hundreds of meritorious petitions in New Jersey and thousands around the country. The federal agency’s unlawful action has placed young people in immediate jeopardy of deportation, despite the family courts’ prior determination that return to their home countries would be against their best interests. Judge Arleo’s order today protects these young people from deportation to countries where they faced uncontrolled gang violence and ensures that they will not be separated from the loving family members the state court appointed as their custodians. We are grateful that the federal court stepped up to stop USCIS’s unlawful practices,” said Catherine Weiss, Partner and Chair of the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest.