By Bruce Lesley
Congress is about to do something good for kids, and you have a chance to be a part of it. Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) will soon introduce the Foster Children Opportunity Act, to increase the likelihood that immigrant children removed from their parents’ custody because of concerns about abuse or neglect will be protected by immigration law benefits already in place. This important legislation needs the endorsement of child welfare advocates.
Our immigration law promises kids victimized by abuse or neglect a chance at a productive life. In 2008, Congress created a special nonimmigrant status in federal immigration law. This Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) allows children brought to the United States, then placed in foster care by state governments, to remain lawfully in the U.S. Children granted SIJS are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after five years.
But for too many qualifying children, it’s an empty promise. SIJS is not well known to child welfare agency officials or to judges and other court officers. As a result, many eligible children never get SIJS protections. If they do not obtain SIJS or other immigration relief options before age 18 (or, in some cases, 21), these children must either surrender for deportation to a country they barely remember or remain unlawfully in the U.S. Those who remain cannot get jobs or a college education and are often forced underground because they can’t get driver’s licenses or other identity documents.
Congressman O’Rourke’s Foster Children Opportunity Act will make the existing immigration law work better, by closing the knowledge gap and improving supportive services. It authorizes federal agencies to inform state child welfare agencies and court officials about SIJS, and it requires child welfare agencies to screen immigrant children in foster care for SIJS eligibility. It clarifies that the federal government will reimburse state and local governments for costs they incurred providing care for kids who qualify for SIJS. And it ensures that SIJS-eligible children can qualify for federal health, nutrition, and other benefits without the five-year waiting period imposed on other immigrants.
The First Focus Campaign for Children led more than 80 state and national organizations in endorsing similar legislation in 2011, but the bill was not passed before its sponsor retired from Congress. With your endorsement for the Foster Children Opportunity Act, we can make an even stronger push for action in Congress this year.
Visit www.firstfocus.net/foa to read the endorsement letter and sign on. Let’s work together to give immigrant kids living in foster care a better chance to lead healthy and productive adult lives.
Bruce Lesley is the President of First Focus, a Washington D.C.-based bi-partisan children’s advocacy organization.