Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Who Is Eligible

Young undocumented people who have been made wards of the state or assigned a guardian may qualify for a U.S. green card.

By , J.D.

Non-citizen children and some young adults who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned by a parent might be able to get a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) through what's called "Special Immigrant Juvenile Status." This can be a relatively direct route to a green card for children who qualify. However, the process is complicated, often lengthy, and best done with the help of an attorney.

Because the application process must be started while the child is still a juvenile, or minor, under state law (before the age of 18 in most states, though it might be possible to apply for SIJS for young people over 18, depending on the legal definition of "child" there), it is important to identify children and youth who may qualify for this status before they are too old to benefit. Teachers, counselors, social workers, and youth probation officers should become aware of this possibility.

Pros and Cons to Special Immigrant Juvenile Status

Some advantages to obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile status include that the child does not need to have entered the U.S. legally and does not need to show any means of financial support—both of which are barriers to most other types of green card approvals, because they make the applicant "inadmissible." (For more information about what might make a person inadmissible, see Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.) In fact, most other grounds of inadmissibility do not matter for Special Immigrant Juveniles.

Also, Special Immigrant Juveniles are one of only a few types of immigrants who are eligible to have the fee for a green card application (USCIS Form I-485) waived.

A disadvantage of this green card option is that a child who is granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is never legally permitted to file any immigrant petition for either parent. Thus, even if only one parent was abusive or neglectful, the child will still never be able to petition for the nonabusive parent to get a green card. For purposes of immigration, it is as if the child were an orphan.

Determining Whether a Child Is Eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status

To meet the basic qualification for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status:

  • A juvenile court, family court, or similar state court must find that the child has been abused, neglected or abandoned. The court must either make the child a ward of the state (a "court dependent") or place the child in the custody of a legal guardian, a state agency, or family member.
  • The same court must also find that it is not in the child's best interest to return to the parents' home country or usual place of residence.

This must be determined by a judge in a court in the state where the child lives, not by immigration officials.

Which kinds of courts can make such a determination, and what the legal standard is for abuse, neglect, or abandonment is a question of state law and differs from state to state. Commonly, juvenile courts, family courts, and probate courts can issue such orders. However, the title of such courts and their powers vary from state to state. This is one reason why it is an excellent idea to find a lawyer to assist in this process.

Only after obtaining documentation of the above can one proceed to the immigration portion of the application process for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, by seeking petition approval and eventually a green card (adjustment of status) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

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