A Years-Long Immigration Backlog Puts Thousands of Abused Kids in Limbo

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As a child in El Salvador, Ariel was brutally bullied by the neighborhood boys—”I always expressed myself very feminine,” Ariel tells TIME—and in 2013, Ariel’s grandmother sent the 13-year-old to the United States to escape an increasingly dangerous environment. But in the U.S., Ariel, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, felt stuck: Sharing a roof with their father was proving impossible, but as an undocumented person, Ariel could neither work legally nor qualify for financial aid to go to school. In July 2020, out of options, Ariel, now 21, left home and moved into a homeless shelter in New York City for LGBTQ young people.

Amidst this bleak experience, Ariel got a bit of good news. In Dec. 2020, Ariel was granted a court order allowing them to apply to a little-known designation—Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a pathway to legal residency for young undocumented people who have been abused or abandoned. The status, granted through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), seemed at first like a godsend: SIJS offered Ariel a path to a green card, a way to live and work legally in the U.S.

But then the reality set in: because of limits on how many green cards USCIS can award under the program annually, the demand has significantly outpaced the supply and caused an extraordinary backlog. According to a trove of new USCIS data that has never been publicly available, tens of thousands of vulnerable young people, like Ariel, have been officially granted SIJS, but are being forced to wait up to five years before actually receiving their green cards—a period during which they are at extreme risk of homelessness, exploitation, and deportation, and often unable to access basic needs, like health care.

The dataset, which includes some 140,000 petitions, was obtained by The Door, a nonprofit youth advocacy organization, the End SIJS Backlog Coalition and Tulane University law professor Laila Hlass as part of an ongoing lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It shows that the SIJS backlog began in 2016 and grew to nearly 64,000 by April 2020, mostly impacting children from Central American countries and Mexico. As of April 2021, more than 44,000 young people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico remain in the backlog.

“We knew the impact [of the backlog]. We could see its impact on the lives of the young people that we represent,” Rachel Leya Davidson, managing attorney for policy and special projects at The Door, tells TIME. But the new dataset, she says, helps to underscore the severity of the problem they witness every day. “We’re really going to be able to understand more concretely how this government is treating children who are survivors of abuse, abandonment and neglect, and what the government is and isn’t doing to ensure their protection.”

The Door, Hlass and End SIJS Backlog Coalition are partnering with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, to examine the effects of the data.

For Ariel, the backlog affects everything. (TIME is using a pseudonym to identify Ariel to protect their privacy because of their vulnerable position). “I just want to be like every other person of my age. Go to college, get a job,” Ariel says. Instead, it feels as if life is “on pause.”

What is the SIJS and the backlog?

Congress created SIJS in 1990 to protect children and young people, up to age 21, who have been “abused, abandoned or neglected.” In order to qualify, young people must first obtain a juvenile court order determining that they have experienced abandonment, abuse or neglect by a parent and that being returned to their home country is not in their best interest.

“[Young people] need lawyers who can identify that they’re eligible for this protection,” says Hlass, one of the authors of the SIJS backlog report. “There are places where there are communities of immigration lawyers who are working with immigrant children in particular…and then there are places where there’s a scarcity of resources. So there’s just no way for those children to be identified and then represented.”

The data obtained by The Door, the coalition and Hlass indicate that in some places many young people are not accessing SIJS at the rate that they should, Hlass says. Texas, for example, makes up 6% of SIJS cases and Massachusetts makes up 5%, though the immigrant population of Texas is higher than that of Massachusetts. “Children in Texas are not being able to access SIJS at the same rate that children in Massachusetts are,” Hlass says. “That’s an access to justice issue.”

Once a young person has obtained a court order, the next step is to petition USCIS for SIJS and for a green card and work permit. In late 2019, Ariel asked for help at The Door, where an attorney at the organization initiated an SIJS application. Due to shut downs as a result of COVID-19, a court order wasn’t issued for Ariel until Dec. 2020.

USCIS states it should take within 180 days for the agency to issue a decision on an SIJS petition, but it could take longer for a green card and work permit. Complicating matters further, SIJS is categorized as employment-based immigration, making it subject to annual limitations for how many green cards per country of origin can be issued, causing the SIJS backlog.

“USCIS is committed to properly administering the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) program, and the agency continues to ensure that children who have required the protection of a court from parental abuse, abandonment or neglect receive the humanitarian benefits for which they are eligible,” a USCIS spokesperson tells TIME in a statement. “USCIS is looking at several policy and procedural options to better protect those who have SIJ classification, but are not yet eligible for Lawful Permanent Residency due to statutory annual limits on visa availability.”

Ariel has been waiting nearly a year for a green card and will likely wait three more, according The Door’s data on wait times by country of origin. Young people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala wait, on average, four years for a green card. Young people from Mexico wait about 2.5 years on average, while young people from other countries wait on average 1.5 years, according to the database.

“I think it’s very unjust for there to be a backlog,” Ariel says. “We’re kids. We’re kids who’ve been through a lot.”

Threat of deportation

Chaita, a 20 year-old from Honduras, has been in the backlog for more than two years, during which time she and her four-year-old son have been in foster care in Yonkers, NY. Chaita is working toward obtaining her GED, while also facing deportation.

According to report’s analysis of the SIJS data, 92% of Honduran SIJS young people who applied for green cards in or after May 2016 were in deportation proceedings, as were 90% of Guatemalan SIJS children and 84% of Salvadoran SIJS children, compared to 27% of SIJS children from other countries. An immigration judge handles deportation proceedings, not SIJS, which is handled by USCIS, therefore a young person is subject to deportation if they have been approved for SIJS but do not yet have their green card, Hlass notes.

Chaita’s smily and sunny disposition fades quickly to something more somber when she talks about why she qualifies for SIJS in the first place. Her father died in Honduras when she was young, and she began her journey to the U.S. with the surviving members of her family shortly after, arriving in 2014 and she was placed in foster care after a few months. “You see things on your migration to the U.S. that you never could have imagined seeing in your life,” Chaita says in Spanish. It was a journey that took months and she was only about 12 years old, she says. “You didn’t know if you were going to wake up the next morning, or if you were going to eat or if you’d go missing.” (Chaita is also being identified by a pseudonym).

Her smiles return when she thinks about what her life could be like if she were to receive a green card. She wants to travel, she says. Brazil is a top destination. She also dreams of becoming a doctor.

Life after the backlog

After waiting 2.5 years in the SIJS backlog, 23-year-old Maria Huerta Rodriguez received her green card in February 2021. She’s employed at The Door helping other SIJS applicants and preparing to go to school to study political science. She realizes she’s lucky, she says, because while Huerta Rodriguez was waiting in the SIJS backlog she was not subject to deportation because she was a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which also allowed her to work and support her two children.

Ariel and Chaita don’t meet the qualifications for DACA because of when they arrived in the U.S.

Huerta Rodriguez helped produce the SIJS backlog report at The Door by interviewing others who are currently in the SIJS backlog. “I consider my story to be sad and harsh, and it’s nothing compared to what I heard,” Huerta Rodriguez tells TIME.

Meanwhile, from the shelter in New York Ariel is often on FaceTime with their grandmother back in El Salvador. “She’s just like the main support that I have,” Ariel says. “I tell her everything that happens, everything about me.” When that green card arrives, Ariel can’t wait to see her again.

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com