Public Comments for: SB1181 - Special immigrant juvenile status; jurisdiction.
Support for SB1181
As a longtime legal advocate, a former Assistant US Attorney, and a current law professor, I strongly encourage you to support SB1181 (Surovell), which would ensure that immigrant children in Virginia are able to access the full protection of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Unaccompanied, undocumented minor children fleeing violence in South and Central America are being placed in Virginia, making our Commonwealth their new home. Some of these children qualify for “special immigrant juvenile status” (SIJS) – an immigration status conferred by the federal government if the state court makes certain factual findings. These state court proceedings are necessary for these children’s cases to move forward. However, with no constitutional right to an attorney, many of these children face these proceedings, and possible deportation, all alone. Nevertheless, receiving SIJS protection often means the difference between life and death for many of these children. According to federal law, a child may apply for SIJS protection prior to turning 21, as long as they can provide the state court’s determination that they had been abused, abandoned, or neglected in their home country. Unfortunately, Virginia’s current law does not mirror the federal provisions, as our Juvenile and Domestic Relations (JDR) Courts only have jurisdiction to conduct this fact-finding until a child reaches the age of 18. This cruel mismatch results in young immigrants who did not receive these crucial findings before they turn 18 being forever closed off to SIJS protection. Even for children who had filed petitions in JDR Court prior to turning 18 – if the determinations are not made in time, they have lost what may be their only chance at safety and stability here in Virginia. Immigrant children are right now caught within the fractures of where federal law and state law do not meet, through no fault of their own. Curing this fracture, i.e., providing JDR courts with the ability to issue these findings until a young person is 21 years old, is a virtually cost-free, minimum-hassle solution with a potentially life-saving impact. Please support SB1181 so that our legal system is a more just system for immigrant children in Virginia. Tara Louise Casey Professor of Law, Legal Practice Director, Carrico Center for Pro Bono & Public Service University of Richmond School of Law
The Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) process involves a mix of both state and federal determinations to find an immigrant child who has escaped abuse, neglect, or abandonment in her home country eligible to remain in the United States and seek permanent residency. The first part of the process requires J&DR courts to make factual findings regarding the child’s situation to determine what would be in their best interests. If the court believes it would not be in the child’s best interests to return to their home country, they can issue an order in support of the child’s SIJS application, which is then argued in the Immigration Court. Many young people and their caregivers are not aware that they must first request factual findings in state J&DR courts before the child can be granted SIJS by the federal government and don’t have access to attorneys to advise them. I handle these cases on a pro bono basis in my clinic at the University of Richmond, but not everyone has counsel. Many have experienced detention at the border or have been separated from family, which further delays seeking appropriate relief. A significant problem can then arise when the federal government rejects an SIJS application after the child turns eighteen and the JDR court loses jurisdiction. Also, attorneys often are not willing to take cases too close to the 18th birthday, because the attorney feels it is unlikely that factual findings will be determined before the child turns eighteen. SB 1181 can help protect these vulnerable, immigrant children who are at risk of being returned to harmful, dangerous, and unstable situations in their home countries. I have represented many children who have escaped unspeakable horrors. This will allow the courts to retain jurisdiction to make factual findings that enable a child to apply for SIJS until the child is 21. Importantly, this bill is limited to situations where the child has previously been in the JDR court prior to the child’s eighteenth birthday. It has always been challenging to get these cases heard before children age out of juvenile court jurisdiction, but everything has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused extensive delays in accessing the court for these proceedings. SB1181 proposes to allow the J&DR courts to retain jurisdiction over these children until they reach the age of twenty-one so that children who are closely approaching eighteen when they file for SIJS are not barred from having a judge make these determinations simply because they could not get a hearing before their eighteenth birthday. SB 1181 does not require or permit J&DR courts to provide immigration status of any kind. The J&DR courts only needs to use their expertise in determining the best interests of the child to make factual findings about the child’s situation. The factual findings from J&DR are submitted along with the child’s SIJS application to the immigration court. SB 1181 is not only critical to protect young people from being removed from a stable and safe living environment, but it is consistent with practices that already exist in Virginia courts and with the federal government’s definition and treatment of a child. Thank you for your consideration. This change could make a significant difference in the lives of these vulnerable children. Prof. Julie McConnell University of Richmond School of Law