US immigration caps put abused children at risk

Early in 2014, Daniel fled from El Salvador to the United States to get away from his abusive stepfather. For as long as Daniel can remember, his stepfather had verbally and physically abused him, leaving bruises and causing excessive bleeding. At age eight, Daniel’s stepfather found him swimming in a river where he was supposed to be doing laundry. He struck his legs repeatedly with a tree branch until they bled. 

Daniel now has his green card through Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SJIS), a remedy that protects immigrant children like Daniel from being deported to parents who abused, abandoned, or neglected them. But federal immigration quotas mean other children may not be offered the same protection. These caps must be removed so that no child is put at risk.

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For the first time, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) representatives reported that they may hit the 10,000-person cap this fiscal year for a special category of green cards, including SIJS. In recent years, the number of applications for SIJS has been steadily increasing. Final numbers for 2015 count 8,739 SIJS petitions approved compared to 3,431 in 2013.

At the heart of SIJS is compassion for children who have been abused and are in need of protection. Congress created SIJS to prevent abused children from being deported with or to parents who abused, abandoned, or neglected them. SIJS cannot achieve the goal of providing a refuge if there are limits on the number of children who are able to receive protection from their abusive parents.

The reason for the recent increase in SIJS petitions is likely due to two factors. First, since 2012, there has been a sharp increase in the number of children fleeing from Northern Triangle countries in Central America—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. According to a study of more than 400 children from the Northern Triangle and Mexico by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about a quarter of these children reported abuse at home as the primary reason for fleeing.

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world, and protection for survivors of domestic violence is almost nonexistent; services are scarce, making relocation within the small country nearly impossible. With a government rife with corruption and a weak judicial system, children are abused and even killed with impunity. Similar conditions in neighboring countries force abused children like Daniel to seek protection elsewhere.

Second, the increase in SIJS petitions is likely due to changes made to the law in 2008 that expanded the group of eligible children. SIJS was created in 1990 to protect immigrant children who were wards of the state whose best interest would be served by remaining in the U.S. The program was expanded in 2008 to include children dependent on a court and for whom reunification with one or both parents is not viable due to abandonment, abuse, or neglect.

When a court makes decisions concerning children, it undergoes a best interests analysis to ensure their safety and well-being. Immigration enforcement frequently overrides a child’s best interest, contrary to both domestic law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for which the child’s best interest is priority. Expanding SIJS eligibility safeguards the best interests of abused children who otherwise, under current immigration law, risk deportation even if it could cause them serious harm.

Even for children who are eligible, there are many obstacles to receiving SIJS. In Daniel’s case, he wasn’t eligible to apply for SIJS until after a long and dangerous journey north. When he arrived in Texas, his guide abandoned him. Not having any money or food, Daniel did not know what else to do and asked a stranger at a gas station to call immigration.

Daniel was arrested by U.S. border patrol officers and detained in a freezing cold holding cell for several days with very little food and no bed. He was then transferred to a children’s shelter where a social worker helped him call his maternal aunt in the U.S., and he awaited an uncertain fate.

It took Daniel 18 long months from when he arrived at the U.S. border to having his SIJS petition approved. At his interview with USCIS, the officer told Daniel his petition was approved, but included a potentially devastating notice:  the agency might have hit the cap on the green cards for the year, so Daniel’s fate was still uncertain. Daniel waited anxiously for two months, until he finally received his green card.

Without the protection of SIJS, Daniel could have been deported to his abusive stepfather in El Salvador--other children may not be as fortunate. The U.S. should remove the cap on SIJS and provide safe passage to the U.S. for children seeking protection under our laws. Additionally, the U.S. should incorporate a best interest standard into immigration law and address the root causes that force young people to flee their home countries. We can’t put a quota on children’s safety and well-being.

Krone is the Youth Justice attorney at the American Friends Service Committee’s Newark Program, where she provides legal representation to immigrant youth, including those who are detained. She frequently represents unaccompanied minors from Central America in their removal proceedings and in obtaining relief such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and asylum.

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