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How JFCS Helps Unaccompanied Children Through Complicated Legal Process

child alone

JFCS Immigration Legal Services helps immigrants with a variety of legal processes such as green cards, citizenship, family reunification, and more. One of our fastest growing programs is our Unaccompanied Children’s program, where we work with immigrant children who arrived without parents or guardians or were separated from their parents. 

The Basics

When we speak about Unaccompanied Children (UC), they are minors, anywhere from ages 0-17, often fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They have experienced extreme hardship in their short lives—abuse, neglect, or abandonment by a parent or guardian, persecution, gang intimidation, human trafficking, rape, or other horrific violence.

They often do not speak much English. While many speak Spanish, others speak indigenous languages with little knowledge of English or Spanish, which increases the difficulty of communication throughout the process.  

Once a child arrives at the border, they generally say they are seeking asylum. Since the child is a minor, US Customs and Border Patrol processes and detains them before sending the child to the custody of the office of refugee resettlement who places them in a shelter to be reunified with a family member or placed in long term foster care while their immigraiton case is completed. 

This is where JFCS gets involved. JFCS Immigration Legal Services works with a number of shelters around Southwestern PA and West Virginia to help the kids understand the legal process, their rights and provide representation as needed when removal proceedings get started. 

JFCS Working in the Shelters

JFCS legal staff typically have about 10 days to provide basic legal services for the children in shelters. While this is happening the government and shelter staff are working to identify sponsors for the children to be released. Sponsors are usually family members living in the United States. When a family member cannot be located the child is placed in the foster care system.

The staff holds a Know Your Rights presentation for the children which uses age appropriate language and explains the process for the US immigration system, their rights in the US, their responsibility of appearing in court, what it means to have a lawyer etc. They also do individual legal screenings and ask many questions about the children’s past, families, journey to the US, and life back home to determine what possible relief from removal they might qualify for. 

If the kids are sent to live with sponsors outside of the Pittsburgh region, our staff make sure that their sponsors are given all the relevant legal information, including a list of lawyers in the area that can help with their case, any upcoming hearing dates and case specific info for that child.

Without representation kids have an 85% higher chance of being deported. 

Navigating Court

For children who stay with a sponsor in the Pittsburgh area, or are released from another shelter to live with a sponsor in the Pittsburgh region, JFCS lawyers work with them to determine relief, prepare their applications and petitions and represent them through the life of their case.

There are several forms of relief that would give a UC permission to stay lawfully in the U.S. though not all UCs will qualify to stay. 

UC most often go through the process of obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which is a status for immigrant children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by a parent or guardian. This process requires a petition be filed in the family court, which determines whether a child qualifies under state law. After obtaining a family court order and findings of fact, immigrant children are then able to apply through USCIS for SIJS status, and once that’s approved and they wait their turn in line for a visa to become available (which takes years) they can close their immigration court removal proceedings and go through the process to obtain a green card.

Other visa options for children are asylum, T-visas, and U-visas: 

Asylum is a status reserved for those who cannot return home because of past persecution or a credible fear of future persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. While many of the UC could choose to pursue asylum, it’s a long, difficult, and complicated process, with a very low success rate. There are currently restrictions set up against asylum because of gang-based violence. An affirmative asylum decision can take years but is a possible path to a green card. 

T-visas are for people who were brought to the US as victims of human trafficking or were exploited into human trafficking while here in the country. To qualify for this, the child must have evidence that they are a victim of human trafficking. They also must show that they will face extreme hardship if they were to return to their home country. This visa includes work authorization with options to obtain a green card after several years.  

U-visas are for victims of crimes, especially violent crimes, enslavement, and kidnapping. The crime must have taken place in the US, and in order to qualify, the child must submit proof of multiple qualifications, including that they suffered physical or mental harm from the criminal activity.  U visas have a limit of 10,000 recipients per year. A green card may be available for immigrants who meet certain requirements after receiving a U visa and waiting several years. 

JFCS legal staff help UC understand all of the options available to them and navigate the long and complicated court processes, including advocating for interpretation and ensuring their sponsor or relative understands the process. 

The legal process for Unaccompanied Children can be extremely complex and can take several months to years to complete. JFCS Immigration Legal Services staff are dedicated to ensuring that these children receive excellent legal help, as well as supportive and safe social services to help them adjust to and navigate life in the US.