On March 15, a federal judge for the southern district of New York ruled in the case of M et al. v. Nielsen that the Trump administration’s recent decision to deny protected status for thousands of 18 to 21-year-old immigrants in New York City was unlawful. According to arguments presented by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) representatives, the youths at issue aged out of the family court’s jurisdiction after they reached the age of majority.
Representatives on behalf of the young migrants joined the federal lawsuit seeking to enjoin the DHS from enforcing the new policy. The plaintiffs argued that DHS changed its policy “on a whim” shortly after President Trump won the election in 2016.
“The [DHS’] policy is contrary to the plain meaning of the [Special Immigrant Juvenile] statute,” said U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl said in a 62-page ruling against the Trump administration. “[It] lacks a reasoned explanation, is premised on erroneous interpretations of state law, and was not enacted with adequate notice.”
DHS counter-argued that the case does not involve a new shift in policy, but rather a novel interpretation of an existing policy. Judge Koeltl addressed this issue, noting that the court record “belies the agency’s assertion that there is not a new policy...” In fact, [DHS] had previously “regularly approved applications by New York SIJ [Special Immigrant Juvenile] petitioners. After the Trump administration issued its policy, DHS essentially stopped approving [SIJ applications.]”
Special Immigrant Juvenile Protection
Under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, a foreign juvenile individual can remain in the U.S. under circumstances that require the protection of a juvenile court due to abuse, abandonment, or parental neglect.
To qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile protection, the petitioner must:
- Be under 21 years old;
- Currently reside in the U.S.;
- Not be married;
- Have a valid order from a juvenile court declaring the petitioner to be dependent on the court, or in custody of the state;
- Show that reunification with their parents cannot occur due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect.
Significantly, determinations as to whether a juvenile should be protected under as an SIJ were left up to state juvenile courts rather than federal agencies. This is because the state court is in a better position to evaluate what course of action would serve the “best interests” of the child. Ultimately the Judge Koeltl held that it is unclear whether Congress intended to give DHS the power to make “best interest” determinations.
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