Non-citizen children who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned by a parent might be able to get a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) through "Special Immigrant Juvenile Status" (SIJS) This article explains the application process for SIJS for children who are not currently in removal proceedings. For more information about eligibility and advantages and disadvantages, please read Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Who Is Eligible.
A child is eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status only if a court in the state where they live finds the child is neglected, abused, or abandoned by one or both parents, and that it is not in the child's best interest to return to their home country. Court terms, procedures, and legal standards vary from state to state.
A child who deserves Special Immigrant Juvenile Status most often makes it into the court system in one of three ways:
Whichever process is used, the attorney will need to bring the abuse, neglect, or abandonment to the attention of the court, and will need to show the judge that it is not in the child's best interest to return to the home country.
The child and family members can expect to be interviewed and might need to testify in court. As much evidence as possible should be gathered to show the abuse, neglect, or abandonment—for example, medical records and reports by police, teachers, or social workers. Affidavits might be needed from witnesses in the child's home country, also.
The court process can take many weeks. Most states require advance notice to the parents and the child about the court proceedings. Special rules might apply for serving notice on parents outside the United States. The court will also need time to appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL), and then the GAL will need to schedule a home visit. The court may also order a background check.
Once a court has found that the child was abused, neglected, or abandoned, and that it is not in the child's best interest to return to the parents' home country or place of residence, the child may file a petition with USCIS requesting Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. This is done using Form I-360, available from the USCIS website, with accompanying documents including a birth certificate (or other proof of age) and copies of the court order of dependency, custody, or guardianship.
Currently, there is no fee for filing this application.
The child (or someone acting on their behalf) must fill out all relevant portions of the petition. This same petition is used for many other immigration procedures, so read the from instructions carefully to see which parts apply to Special Immigrant Juveniles. Children over age 14 must sign the petitions themselves, younger children may have a parent or guardian sign (for example: "Jane Littleton by her guardian Joe Biggs").
The child is expected to file the petition while unmarried and while the court order is still in effect. In the past, this meant that the child had to file the petition before turning 18 years old. However, new regulations promulgated in 2022 state that if the court order ends only because the child turned 18, the child will have up to age 21 to file the petition. Another exception to the valid-court-order requirement is made if the child has been adopted, placed in a permanent guardianship, or reached another child welfare permanency goal.
USCIS will review the I-360 and the other evidence to determine whether the child qualifies for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. If USCIS believes that more evidence is needed, it can issue a "request for evidence" or RFE. The officer reviewing the file should accept the findings of the judge as to whether the child was abused, neglected, or abandoned. However, the officer may decline to grant status based on a belief that the court order was obtained only for the purpose of immigration.
USCIS is required to make a decision on the petition within 180 days from the time it was submitted.
After USCIS approves the I-360, the child might need to wait before taking the next step toward applying for a green card. That's because the child is not eligible until they have a current "priority date," meaning that a visa is available to them in the fourth preference (EB-4) immigrant visa category for special immigrants. (Oddly, this is technically an employment-based category, as are all "special immigrant" visa categories.)
Owing to annual limits and high demand, however, this category has been backed up in recent years, leading to long waits between USCIS approval of the I-360 and applicants being able to move forward with a green card application. In fact, in 2022, it was reported that children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala had waited an average of over four years between applying for SIJS and actually receiving approval for a U.S. green card.
Fortunately, applicants with approved I-360s but whose priority dates are not yet current can (starting May 6, 2022) qualify for a sort of temporary limbo status called deferred action, which comes with protection from deportation and the chance to apply for a work permit. See the USCIS news release and Policy Alert for details. To apply for the work permit (employment authorization or an "EAD") the child will need to submit Form I-765 and indicate category (c)(14) in answer to Question 27.
Once the priority date is current, the child will need to submit Form I-485 "Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status" and supporting documents to USCIS. (This may also be submitted at the same time as the I-360 petition if there's no wait in this category, but that hasn't happened lately).
Special Immigrant Juveniles may ask USCIS to waive the I-485 application fee. This is done by using Form I-912, request for fee waiver. See the section of instructions for that form about Special Immigrant Juveniles. Otherwise, the green card process is similar to the process for family-based visas. See How to Submit an Adjustment of Status Packet to USCIS.