When I met Dalia, she was as quiet as the grave. She had good reason to be withdrawn and mistrustful, hiding even her eyes behind her hair. When Dalia was a few months old, her mother fled from domestic violence in El Salvador to the United States, leaving her daughter behind with a substance-abusing father. After years of being passed around to distracted relatives, Dalia’s father was shot and killed by the police when a drug deal went awry.
Dalia became a street child, sleeping in a shed and gathering scrap metal. One day her mother finally managed to gather together the money to have Dalia transported by smugglers on the dangerous journey through Mexico to the Texas border. Like most children arriving in the US without a parent, Dalia was placed in a detention center (or “foster”) facility funded by the Department of Health and Human Services for about a month before being released to live with her mom here in DC. And like every other immigrant and refugee, Dalia has no right to a public defender for her pending deportation case. Kids like Dalia, no matter how young, must navigate a hostile and complex immigration system, in English, with whatever resources their guardians can spare. Organizations like Legal Aid can only meet a fraction of the need for free and affordable services to fill the gap.
Many undocumented children like Dalia can ask for a special defense against deportation and begin the road to permanent residence and stability. Created in 1990, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (sometimes called SIJS) was initially obscure. From 2014 to today, the number of kids applying for SIJS has skyrocketed around 500%, with a waiting list for thousands of kids in precarious situations. However, many more undocumented children and families still don’t even know this option exists.
It’s easiest to understand the path to win SIJS through example:
1 - The child must be a minor in the state where they live, and unmarried
In DC, that means Dalia (and virtually all children) must apply before their 18th birthday. Other states, like Maryland, allow a child to start their case before turning 21. As an 11 year-old who is not legally married, Dalia qualifies.
2 - The child must be dependent on a state juvenile court, or in the custody of a state agency
For a child like Dalia who isn’t in foster care, that means a guardian (like Dalia’s mother) must file a custody petition in the local family court, and ask the judge for a special order confirming certain facts are true for the next two factors.
3 - The child must be unable to reunify with one or both parents due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment
Here, the family court judge considers if the child has suffered abuse, neglect, or abandonment based on the definitions in local family law. Dalia has clearly suffered neglect and abandonment under DC law and cannot be reunified with her father, so she qualifies under this factor too.
4 - It is not in the child’s best interest to be returned to their home country
Finally, the family court judge can consider all aspects of a child’s situation. If Dalia were returned to El Salvador, she would have no home, no family available to care for her, and be highly vulnerable in a country struggling with some of the worst violent crime rates in the world. It would be against her best interests for the government to take her from her mom and deport her.
As we work to protect children like Dalia from deportation, there are important steps Congress and the Executive Branch should take to strengthen SIJS protections, such as granting deferred action to protect kids with approved SIJS applications from being deported, lifting arbitrary quotas that mean children from a few countries wait 2-3 years longer than other kids to become green card holders, and ending bureaucratic backlogs in processing these urgent humanitarian cases.