January 23, 2018

DC Court of Appeals Reviews Special Immigrant Juvenile Status Requirements

By Cristina Cooper

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association. 

State supreme courts are increasingly being asked to provide guidance about requests for findings related to Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).[1] An immigrant youth can only seek SIJS, a form of humanitarian immigration relief, from the federal government after securing a state court order that includes specific findings. As the number of immigrant children and youth seeking SIJS has increased, more state trial and appellate courts are asked to consider petitions for findings in specific cases and, more broadly, the role of a state court in the SIJS process.

Several appellate decisions focus on whether the trial court can enter any SIJS findings. Others address more discrete areas, such as what a trial court with jurisdiction over youth under 18 should do when the young person reaches the age of majority in the state. In a recent case, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals (the court of last resort in Washington, D.C.) addressed the finding of reunification of an immigrant youth with a parent not being viable due to abandonment.

In J.U. v. J.C.P.C.,[2] a mother filed for custody of her son, who had fled El Salvador to live with her in the U.S., and sought SIJS findings. After a hearing during which the mother and son testified and a consent answer was entered by the father to the custody complaint and motion for SIJS findings, the trial court judge granted the mother sole legal and physical custody and entered several SIJS findings. However, the trial court refused to enter a finding that the son’s reunification with his father was not viable, saying the son had not been abandoned by his father and that the mother and son were “minimizing” the father’s involvement in the son’s life.

The D.C. Court of Appeals disagreed, noting the evidence showed that while there had been contact between father and son, the trial court “applied too demanding a standard of both ‘viability’ and ‘abandonment’ in the context of this particular case.”[3] Given the full history of the relationship between the son and his father, and assessing how that history would impact the practicability or workability of custody by the father of the son, the appellate court found the father had abandoned the son and reunification was not viable. The appellate court vacated the trial court’s original order and directed that an amended order be issued that included a finding that the son’s reunification with his father was not viable due to abandonment under D.C. law.

Early in its opinion, the D.C. Court of Appeals provides an overview of SIJS, and cites the Center’s 2017 CLP article, A Guide for State Court Judges and Lawyers on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status,[4] as a source of additional information. The opinion also draws heavily from the SIJS statute, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Policy Manual, and recent SIJS appellate cases from New York and California.

[1] See, e.g., Guardianship of Penate, 76 N.E.3d 960 (Mass. 2017), B.R.C.M. v. Florida Dep't of Children & Families, No. SC16-179, 2017 WL 1709786 (Fla. Apr. 20, 2017).

[2] J.U. v. J.C.P.C., N. 16-FM-1153, 2018 WL 282928 (D.C. App. 2018).   

[3] Id. at 14

[4] Cooper, Cristina Ritchie. “A Guide for State Court Judges and Lawyers on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.” Child L. Practice 36(2), March/April 2017, 25.