California A.G. Supports Program for Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth

Last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra weighed in by saying that California should play a greater role in protecting youth who are fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries.

 At the invitation of the Los Angeles Superior Court and the suggestion of the California Supreme Court, Becerra filed an amicus brief in the In re Denis G. case advocating for greater protections for unaccompanied undocumented youth seeking legal immigration status under the federal Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) program. SIJS provides a pathway to citizenship and foster care for some children.

“Allowing these children, who are now California residents, to pursue valid claims for SIJ status, which may allow them to avoid the harmful consequences of removal and achieve permanence, is consistent with the State’s obligation to ‘protect children,'” Becerra argued in the brief. “These children are placed in legal purgatory where they are unable to proceed with the process to obtain legal status and remain exposed to risk of deportation at any time.”

Becerra has taken an active role in challenging President Trump’s immigration policies, including the travel ban. In the brief filed last Friday, Becerra emphasized that courts in California should take into account the abuse, neglect and abandonment issues facing unaccompanied immigrant children like Denis, the unaccompanied immigrant minor at the center of the case.

“California has a ‘parens patriae interest in preserving and promoting the welfare’ of all children who live in California, including the thousands of unaccompanied minors who were released by the federal government to adult sponsors here,” stated Becerra in the brief. “Many of the 20,642 unaccompanied minors released in California in recent years may have a substantial claim that they satisfy the SIJ criteria. For these children, the consequences of returning to their home county can be deadly.”

SIJS is a federal State Department program created to protect certain abused, neglected, or abandoned children under certain provisions: juveniles under the age of 21 who have been declared a dependent of a juvenile court, who are not able to be reunified with one or both parents due to abuse or neglect, and for whom a return to their country of origin is determined to not be in their best interests.

Children and juveniles that receive SIJS visas are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident status, also knows as a green card.

In the spring and summer of 2016, due to mandated federal caps that limited the number of “special immigrant” visas that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may issue at approximately 10,000 per year nationwide, visas ran out for juveniles applying for SIJS-based green cards from Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) and Mexico as a result of a wave of children fleeing gang violence, sexual assault, and rape, particularly in Central America.

In his press release, Attorney General Becerra stated that he “believes it is critical to stand up for unaccompanied children who come to California seeking safety and security.”

Although the California courts can, at the behest of Becerra, continue to provide children seeking SIJ status with the necessary state-level court findings, the brief does not address the limitation of available SIJS visas.

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