Special Immigrant Juvenile Status Application Process

Procedures to obtain a U.S. green card for children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and whose best interests will not be served by returning them to their home country.

Non-citizen children who are living in the U.S. and 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 (deportation) proceedings.

For background information about eligibility and SIJS advantages and disadvantages, please read Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Who Is Eligible.

Step One: State Court Finding of Neglect, Abuse, or Abandonment

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, abandoned, or something similar, 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. The court will need to issue something usually called "special findings" or a "predicate order."

Types of State Court Proceedings

A child who deserves Special Immigrant Juvenile Status most often makes it into the court system in one of three ways:

  1. A family might be reported to the police or child welfare agency because of abuse or neglect of children. Such a case might enter the juvenile court system in order to determine whether the child should be made a ward of the state or placed with a private guardian. A government attorney will handle the case. If the child does not yet have legal, permanent immigration status in the U.S., the child or interested adults should ask the attorney to consider Special Immigrant Juvenile Status when presenting the case.
  2. A non-abusive parent or other family member could petition for custody in family court as part of a divorce or paternity case, alleging abuse, neglect, or abandonment by the one of the parents. In this situation, the person seeking custody would usually need to hire a private attorney. The judge might also ask that a separate attorney called a "Guardian ad Litem" (GAL) meet with the child and the family. The GAL will make a report to the judge about the family situation and the best interests of the child.
  3. A family member or friend may petition in court to be the legal guardian of the child. This option is often used when the parents have left the child with a friend or relative, and have stopped taking care of the child, but no reports have been made to police or child welfare authorities. In many states, this is done in probate court. As with a custody case in family court, the potential guardian can hire a private attorney, and the judge may appoint a "Guardian ad Litem."

Common Procedures to Obtain a State Court Finding of Abuse, Abandonment, or Neglect

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, and the child's relationship to the parent and any proposed guardian—for example, birth certificates, medical records, and reports by police, teachers, or social workers. Affidavits might be needed from the applicant as well as witnesses, including in the child's home country. If the biological parents are willing to sign a form consenting to someone else being appointed guardian, that can move things along significantly. Including articles about conditions in the home country can also be relevant and helpful, for purposes of meeting the "best interests" standard.

The court process can take many weeks. Most states require advance notice ("service of process") to the parents and the child about the court proceedings. Special rules might apply for serving notice on parents outside the United States, with international law overlaps (as will be the case if parents are in one of the countries that has signed onto a treaty known as the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children).

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 the court issues an order, you'll want to make sure it includes enough factual detail to avoid follow-up questions from USCIS. A good lawyer can potentially draft a proposed order for the court to draw from

Step Two, Submitting I-360 Petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status

Once a court has issued an order finding 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 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requesting Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. This is done using Form I-360, available for free download from the USCIS website, and by including accompanying documents including a birth certificate (or other proof of age) and copies of the court order of dependency, custody, or guardianship.

The child (or someone acting on the child's behalf) must fill out all relevant portions of the petition. This same petition is used for many other types of immigration procedures, so read the from instructions carefully to see which parts apply to Special Immigrant Juveniles (and leave the other sections blank).

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").

Currently, there is no fee for filing the I-360 petition. Look carefully for the filing address, shown on a special USCIS page. The exact address depends on your reason for filing, so click "Special Immigrant Juvenile."

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.

Be sure to get it into USCIS's inbox BEFORE the child turns 21. Waiting until the child is 21 to submit the petition will not do it. If you're worried about the petition arriving on time (before the child's 21st birthday) by mail, there's a possibility for contacting USCIS and getting an in-person appointment for filing purposes. This is a new procedure, however, so do your best to avoid having to try it.

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. And so long as the I-360 petition has been approved, it's okay for the child to get married (a relatively recent change made in recognition of the fact that USCIS backlogs can create an unfairly long wait).

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 to the United States.

USCIS is supposed to make a decision on the petition within 180 days from the time it was submitted. It has been getting better at doing so; you can check its latest processing times online.

Step 3, Await a Current Priority Date

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 years-long waits between USCIS approval of the I-360 and applicants being able to move forward with a green card application.

Fortunately, applicants with approved I-360s but whose priority dates are not yet current can 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 USCIS Form I-765 and indicate category (c)(14) in answer to Question 27.

Step 4, Apply for U.S. Permanent Residence (Adjustment of Status)

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). No fee is required of SIJS applicants, as of April 1, 2024.

Approval is not automatic. First, applicants must prove that they are not inadmissible (though some grounds of inadmissibility can be waived in SIJS cases, for humanitarian, family unity, or public interest reasons). Applicants must also show that they deserve a favorable exercise of discretion.

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.

Getting Legal Help

Obtaining SIJS is a multi-step, complex application process. It's well worth consulting with an experienced attorney for a full analysis of your case's potential to win, and potentially assistance with the application process. A child who is placed into removal (deportation) proceedings should definitely hire an attorney for the best chance of success.

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