U.S. Department of Homeland Security building in Washington, D.C. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security ran afoul of Administrative Procedure Act safeguards when it denied special status to several young immigrants in New York, U.S. District Judge John Koeltl of the Southern District of New York ruled.

Koeltl granted summary judgment to the class of plaintiffs, all of whom were determined by New York state family courts to have been abused or neglected by their parents, but were subsequently denied special immigration juvenile status by DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The plaintiffs claimed federal officials had adopted a new policy around the immigration policy, without alerting anyone to the changes. They claim under the previous SIJ application process, their petitions would have been granted.

In his decision, Koeltl said that, despite claims to the contrary, it was “plain” that officials are out of compliance with federal immigration law by not allowing the state courts to issue necessary finding for juvenile immigrants between 18 and 21 years of age, which would enable them to obtain protected immigration status.

“If the immigration laws are to be changed in that way, the change must come from Congress and not from the immigration authorities,” Koeltl stated.

According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys with The Legal Aid Society and Latham & Watkins, the announced policy impacted thousands of younger immigrants across the country.

“This sweeping decision leaves no doubt that USCIS deliberately violated the rights of the most vulnerable, young immigrants—those who were abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents,” said Legal Aid Society supervising attorney Beth Krause, with the organization’s immigration law unit. “We are relieved that the federal courts have once again been willing to rein in the arbitrary and capricious policies of the Trump administration.”

Latham & Watkins partner Robert Malionek noted in a statement that the special immigration juvenile status program was created in 1990 to protect a particularly vulnerable group of young immigrants. The suit challenged federal immigration authorities’ move to disqualify New York state family courts as “juvenile courts” for immigrants in the early adult age range, despite the language in the federal statute and prior readings of New York state law.

“Our class, made up of thousands of abused, abandoned, or neglected young immigrants, once again have a path to citizenship,” Malionek said.

Koeltl ordered the plaintiffs to submit a proposed judgment with declaratory and injunctive relief recommendations by March 22, with federal authorities to reply a week later.

A spokeswoman for USCIS said the department was evaluating the decision but couldn’t comment on litigation directly.

In a separate statement, USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins remarked on the SIJ program in general, saying the department will continue “to ensure that children who have required the protection of a juvenile court … receive the humanitarian benefits they are eligible for.”

“The agency’s highly trained and experienced officers evaluate each petition individually, on a case-by-case basis, to determine if it qualifies for SIJ status according to our nation’s laws and policies,” Collins said.


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