Minors who are fleeing violence and gang persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been arriving alone since late 2013 at the United States-Mexico border. Thanks to a law aimed at fighting human trafficking, they may qualify for free representation in immigration court. CARECEN is one of several community organizations contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to represent these children.
Recent estimates show that almost 3,400 children who arrived unaccompanied live in Los Angeles County. CARECEN has two teams of attorneys -- one in our headquarters and one in our San Fernando Valley office -- to represent unaccompanied children in the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles immigration court. That includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties. We do active outreach to ensure these children are not alone when they face the immigration system.
Generally, unaccompanied minors who arrive in the United States and end up in the custody of ORR may be eligible to remain and reunite with family through one of two remedies: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and Asylum.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status
According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) allows undocumented children under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents to obtain lawful, permanent immigration status within the United States.
Qualifying children must meet certain initial criteria codified in the law, including:
- The applicant must be under 21 years old
- He/she must be unmarried
- He/she must be declared a dependent of the state; in other words, a state court must have taken jurisdiction over the applicant's petition
- Reunification with one or both of the applicant’s parents must no longer be a viable option
- It is not in the best interest of the applicant to return to his/her home country
SIJS has several benefits. First, it allows factors that would otherwise disqualify other applicants from becoming a permanent resident (getting a green card), such as unlawful entry or working without a permit. A child who receives SIJS status can become a lawful permanent resident, get a work permit, and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. However, under SIJS, the child cannot petition for immigration benefits on behalf of birth parents, siblings, or other family members.
Each case is different and the details determine what remedy, if any, is available. We sometimes find that children who arrived unaccompanied may qualify for other forms of relief, such as a U-visa or a family petition. We always recommend families seek help from a qualified immigration attorney and especially avoid notarios or immigration consultants who do not have a law license through the California Bar.
If you are a sponsor of an unaccompanied child, or you know of an unaccompanied child who needs representation, please call Angela Morales at CARECEN, (213) 385-7800 x147.
If you are a parent who would like to have their child brought to the United States through In-Country Processing, contact the International Rescue Committee, (818) 550-6220 x110.