By Olga Byrne (Project Director NY Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project, Feerick Center for Social Justice/ Fordham Law School)
Last week, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, highlighting allegations of fraud in connection with the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) program. He requested that the secretary take immediate anti-fraud measures. Any government benefits program must detect and respond to fraudulent applications. But Goodlatte’s requests are unnecessary given the anti-fraud measures already in place. Moreover, Goodlatte has helped push proposed legislation through the House Judiciary Committee that would cut back on SIJ eligibility and leave many vulnerable children without protection. Goodlatte clearly misunderstands that SIJ is deeply rooted in American values about protecting children from harm and these proposed changes will increase the already daunting challenges that child immigrants face.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is available to youth under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected, abandoned, or similarly mistreated by at least one of their parents. Congress created SIJ in 1990 after officials from the Santa Clara Social Services Agency in California sought a solution to the problems faced by undocumented immigrant youth who were aging out of the foster care system. SIJ facilitates permanency and self-sufficiency by providing an option for lawful permanent residence. Lawful status, in turn, enables youths to access employment and educational opportunities. SIJ was, and continues to be, the only provision in substantive immigration law that considers a child’s best interests—the cornerstone principle of U.S. child protection systems.