Massive backlog is keeping young migrants on special visa in legal limbo, report says

Published: Wednesday, December 6, 2023 - 8:39am
Updated: Wednesday, December 6, 2023 - 5:23pm

There’s a growing backlog of young immigrants on a special protective status who are trying to get residency in the U.S. That backlog is detailed in a new report by the legal aid group National Immigration Project.

The Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or SIJS, is for young immigrants who’ve experienced neglect or abuse at the hands of their parents or guardians. 

Recipients can then apply for a green card and a work permit — which usually takes about a year. Rachel Davidson, the director of the End SIJS Backlog Coalition and a co-author of the National Immigration Project report, says right now, it’s taking about six years. 

"So they’re trapped in this legal limbo, no-man’s land in between having this classification and not being able to apply for this green card, which is the full purpose of this classification," she said. 

Davidson says that limbo leaves status holders at risk of deportation and causes further delays for getting things like work permits, medical care and federal student aid. The report uses data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and estimates more than 100,000 children with the SIJS status are locked into the backlog for further protections.

Davidson says that’s largely because even though the status is a humanitarian protection, it’s classified as an employment-based visa in the same category as those required for specialized sectors — like religious-based work — and subject to yearly caps. Davidson says the wait has been exacerbated because of a recent Department of State policy change. 

"The Department of State, in March, announced that they had been misinterpreting the visa caps and misinterpreting the law since 2016, and they were going to reinterpret it," she said. "When they did, it essentially swallowed up the entire category into the backlog."

She says Congress should remove the status from the list of visas subject to the caps.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correct Rachel Davidson's name and to clarify why the visa wait time has been exacerbated.  

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