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

The Department of Homeland Security must reverse course on changes to a humanitarian immigration relief program for abandoned and abused young people, under an order issued by U.S. District Judge John Koeltl of the Southern District of New York Tuesday.

The district court found the department was in violation of federal law when it made unannounced changes in early 2018 to its handling of special immigrant juvenile petitions coming out of New York State family courts. The order laid out the details of how federal immigration authorities were to handle previously denied petitions, while demanding going forward they refrain from deviating from policies that were in place before 2018.

Immigration legal advocates hailed the district court’s order as a major win, correcting the federal government’s actions.

“This order is a huge step for our clients and others who were unlawfully and arbitrarily denied vital humanitarian status,” Beth Krause, supervising attorney of the Immigrant Youth Project at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “Immigrant youth who reside in New York State and who survived abuse, abandonment, or neglect will now be put on a path towards securing a green card.”

On Tuesday, Koeltl finalized the findings in a March 15 summary judgment order. In that decision, the district court determined that DHS was in violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act when it refused to recognize so-called special finding orders issued by state family court judges that established the eligibility of juvenile immigrants between the ages of 18 and 21 to obtain protective status.

Koeltl issued declaratory and injunctive relief, finding DHS’ conclusion that New York’s family courts lacked jurisdiction and authority to enter findings for young adult immigrants violated the SIJ federal statute.

Additionally, the district court found DHS’ parental reunification powers policy it placed on juvenile courts as a requirement before the department was willing to accept a special immigration juvenile petition as complete also contravened the federal immigration law.

Now, the class of young immigrants certified by Koeltl in March will be allowed to reopen their cases if previously denied because of DHS’ policies, as well as barring DHS from denying petitions that included determinations from New York family courts.

A spokesman for DHS did not comment on the decision. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which handled the case for the government, declined to comment.

DHS’ alleged policy changes in early 2018 came as a shock to the four plaintiffs in the case. In the amended complaint filed in August, the four plaintiffs claimed to have sought special protection under the Special  Immigrant  Juvenile  Status program created by Congress in 1990. The four 18- to 20-year-old immigrants claimed an array of issues, from family abandonment to fleeing violence in their home countries.

According to the plaintiffs, each would have been eligible for SJIS, and placed on a path to legal residency and citizenship. Instead, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied the plaintiffs and allegedly hundreds more applications, on the previously unheard of basis that New York’s family courts lacked authority under state law on child welfare issues, according to the complaint.

Specifically, the plaintiffs claim, federal authorities decided the state family courts no longer qualified as “juvenile courts” as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, because they have no jurisdiction over young adults under 21 years of age. Second, the family courts also lacked the authority to reunify SJIS applicants in that age range with a parent.

The plaintiffs challenged DHS’ interpretation of the law, claiming the text of the law doesn’t support the department’s new reading, but, even if they did, that New York State law provides the family courts such authority. In March, Koeltl agreed, granting the summary judgment motion by the plaintiffs.

In his order, Koeltl said DHS was obligated to handle the class members’ claims within three years, while specifically noting that the department was under “continuing obligation not to violate the law” going forward. Regular compliance status reports were ordered to be filed with the court, the judge ordered.

The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys from The Legal Aid Society and Latham & Watkins, led by partner Robert Malionek. In a statement, he praised the court’s decision.

“We filed this lawsuit last year with the simple goal of enforcing the law on behalf of the most vulnerable of populations. Today, we are thrilled to have achieved that goal in full. Immigrant youth who have been mistreated or abandoned by a parent can now obtain the immigration status to which they are entitled,” Malionek said.

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