The Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest has filed a class action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of four immigrant youths and all others similarly situated against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and leaders in these agencies. The action challenges the federal government’s refusal to provide humanitarian relief in the form of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) to young people who were between 18 and 21 years old when they obtained child welfare findings from a state juvenile court, a necessary predicate to applying for SIJS.

The four young plaintiffs–immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala–each sought the protection of the New Jersey family court, which awarded custody to an adult family member. The family court also made certain findings related to SIJS (“SIJS findings”), including that the young people could not be safely reunified with one or both of their parents because of abuse, neglect, abandonment (or something similar) and that it was not in the best interest of the youth to be returned to his country of origin. Each plaintiff then applied to USCIS for SIJS, appending the state court order, as federal law requires. 

In each case, USCIS denied or stated its intention to deny this relief. In each case, USCIS articulated the same two-part rationale: (1) the family court must have the authority to reunify the juvenile with the allegedly unfit parent, and (2) the New Jersey family court lacks such authority as to youth between their 18th and 21st birthdays. USCIS is wrong on both counts. Nothing in federal law demands that, as a condition of making SIJS findings, the state courts must have authority to order a juvenile’s reunification with an unfit parent; if such reunification were appropriate, however, binding New Jersey state court decisions give the family courts the power to order it.

“USCIS’s arbitrary and capricious imposition of this new eligibility requirement for SIJS has resulted in the delay and denial of scores of meritorious petitions in New Jersey and hundreds around the country. The federal agency’s unlawful action has placed young people in immediate jeopardy of deportation, despite the family courts’ prior determination that return to their home countries would be against their best interests. Relying on its lawless denial of SIJS, the government threatens to send many of these young people back to places where they faced uncontrolled gang violence. In nearly all cases, deportation would also sever them from what is often the first stable family they have ever known,” said Catherine Weiss, Chair of Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest.

Congress’s original intent in creating SIJS was to protect vulnerable immigrant youth by allowing them to remain lawfully in the United States in loving and stable homes after one or more of their parents proved unwilling or unable to care for them. The relevant federal statute and regulations explicitly make juveniles eligible so long as they apply before they turn 21. USCIS has nevertheless disqualified an entire class of older juveniles from this form of relief based on a theory that defies federal law and usurps the authority Congress vested in the state courts to make the underlying child welfare findings.

In addition to the four individual named plaintiffs, more than 100 others find themselves in similar circumstances in New Jersey alone. The proposed class includes those individuals who have filed or will file SIJS petitions based on New Jersey family court orders that were entered between the petitioners’ 18th and 21st birthdays, and whose SIJS petitions are, have been, or will be delayed, denied, or revoked based on USCIS’s unfounded assertion that the family court lacks jurisdiction over them.

The suit asks the Court to prevent USCIS from relying on an extra-statutory eligibility requirement for SIJS that violates federal law; to compel the government to rescind the improper SIJS denials or revocations already issued; to reopen these SIJS petitions; and to enjoin any future denials or revocations of SIJS based on the federal agency’s assertion that the New Jersey family court lacks authority to place juveniles between the ages of 18 and 21 in the custody of their parents. This is the fourth such lawsuit to be filed in the nation. Federal courts in California and New York have already enjoined USCIS’s new policy and practice in those states; another challenge is pending in Washington State. Because USCIS applies its policy based on its view of the laws of each state, young people are challenging the policy one state at a time.

The Lowenstein Center team in this suit is Catherine Weiss, Natalie J. Kraner, Craig Dashiell, Eric R. Suggs, Tracy F. Buffer, and Claudia Lorenzo.