Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS): Who Is Eligible

Foreign national children in the U.S. who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by their parents might be able to obtain lawful permanent residence as a protective measure.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

Non-citizen children and some young adults who are in the United States and have been neglected, abused, abandoned, or something similar by a parent might be able to get a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) through what's called "Special Immigrant Juvenile Status" or "SIJS." 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.

For the law on this topic, go to I.N.A. § 101(a)(27)(J); 8 C.F.R. § 204.11.

Because the application process must normally be started while the child is under age 21 and unmarried, it is important to identify children and youth who might 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.

Here, we'll discuss:

  • the pluses and minuses of SIJS, and
  • basic eligibility requirements for SIJS.

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 this issue, 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 need not pay a fee for their green card application (USCIS Form I-485). (Although in the past, they needed to apply for a fee waiver, as of April 1, 2024, they are automatically exempt.)

A disadvantage of the SIJS 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 non-abusive parent to get a green card. For purposes of immigration, it is as if the child were an orphan.

And there are some aspects of the process that can make prospective guardians worry, particularly if they themselves undocumented. (Not uncommon if the child is being cared for by more distant family in the United States.) The prospective guardians might be required to undergo background checks (including fingerprinting) and a home study, and pay various fees. The family court judge isn't in charge of enforcing U.S. immigration laws, but if, for example, the prospective guardian has a prior removal (deportation) order on file, the judge will be naturally concerned that the guardian might be at risk of leaving the United States.

Determining Whether a Child Is Eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status

To meet the basic qualification for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status:

  • The child must be age 21 or under (though this is subject to the definition of a "minor" under the law of the state where the child lives, and in some cases it might be possible to pursue SIJS after the child is older)
  • The child must be unmarried at the time of filing the initial petition (Form I-360) and through its approval.
  • The child must be living in the United States.
  • A juvenile court, family court, or similar state court must find that the child has been abused, neglected, abandoned, or something similar. The court must either make the child a ward of the state (a "court dependent") or place the child in the custody or care 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.

The above decisions must be handled by a judge in a court in the state where the child lives, not by U.S. 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 or youth offender 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.

What Does Abused, Neglected, or Abandoned Mean?

Under typical state laws, abuse is said to involve physical injury that threatens life or health. It doesn't mean spanking or other corporal punishment.

Neglect has more to do with providing a minimum level of care or supervision despite having the financial means to do so. (Poverty by itself is not neglect.) It can involve using alcohol or drugs in the child's presence, leaving the child alone, or engaging in excessive corporal punishment.

Abandonment means when parents intentionally give up parental rights, for example by having minimal or no meaningful personal contact, refusing to provide financial support, and so on. Depending on the specifics of state law, it might still be alleged even after the child turns 18 and is no longer considered a minor.

What Does "Best Interests of the Child" Mean?

This standard will also be determined by state law, but typically involves looking at the big picture of how the child's life would be impacted if refused U.S. permanent residence. Consider what would happen if the child were returned to the country of origin, in terms of safety, access to education, access to medical care, the presence of family and other support systems, and any history of traumatic experiences or personal dangers there.

Also consider how staying in the United States could benefit the child, in terms of educational and career goals, a stable family life once the custody or guardianship is established, and so on.

When Can the Child Get a U.S. Green Card?

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 I-360 petition approval and eventually a green card (adjustment of status) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

For More Information

SIJS is a complex portion of U.S. immigration law, with overlays with other types of law. It's well worth consulting 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 proceedings before an immigration judge should absolutely hire an attorney.

Talk to an Immigration attorney.
We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you