A federal district judge issued an amended judgment and notice for class in R.F.M. et al. v. Nielsen, et al. In 2018, the Legal Aid Society and Latham & Watkins LLP brought the lawsuit to challenge the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) unlawful policy of denying a special form of humanitarian, immigration relief (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status – “SIJS”) for vulnerable, immigrant youth in New York who suffered abuse, abandonment, or neglect. The lawsuit, filed as a class action by five young adults who applied for but were denied SIJS by USCIS, challenged USCIS’s new policy.
Plaintiffs successfully argued that USCIS’ new policy violated the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) because it contradicted the federal statute that created SIJS and misinterpreted New York state law.
The amended judgment states that:
The class includes all individuals, ages 18-21 years, who filed for SIJS after January 1, 2016 based on a New York Family Court Special Findings Order making the findings necessary to apply for SIJS. The class also includes: 1) those whose previously approved SIJS applications were revoked by USCIS after January 1, 2016, or 2) anyone who received a notice to revoke after January 1, 2016. The class includes all individuals who meet the above requirements, regardless of the status of their application (e.g., denied, issued a “notice of intent to deny,” issued an “request for evidence,” case on appeal, etc.).
Within 60 days of the date of the Amended Judgement and Notice, USCIS will mail notices to all young people in the class, as well as their attorneys of record, in both English and Spanish.
USCIS will re-adjudicate all SIJS petitions that were denied by USCIS, at least in part, on the basis of USCIS’s unlawful interpretation that New York Family Courts are not “juvenile courts” when the subject child is between 18 and 21 years old or that the New York Family Courts do not have authority “reunify” petitioners between the ages of 18 and 21 with their parents.
If a class member’s SIJS petition is no longer pending before USCIS, meaning that their application was denied or revoked and was not appealed or was appealed and the appeal was denied, those class members must file a USCIS Form I-290B identifying themselves as part of the class within two years of the amended judgment. If a class member’s SIJS application remains pending before USCIS, no further action is required.
If a class member’s SIJS petition remains pending, USCIS will adjudicate that petition in accordance with the decision in R.F.M.
“The young people impacted by the government’s unlawful policy will have their SIJS petitions adjudicated in accordance with the law. They deserve that and more after the difficulties they have faced in their personal lives and after being further mistreated by the government,” said Beth Krause, Supervising Attorney of the Migrant Youth Project at The Legal Aid Society.
“We are thrilled that the court continues to side with our plaintiffs, and to maintain necessary legal protections for immigrant youth who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. This judgment requires the government to adjudicate – or readjudicate – the SIJS petitions of the thousands of class members who have been tainted by this unlawful policy, and will protect many others at risk of further abuse and neglect going forward,” said Latham & Watkins partner Robert Malionek.
SIJS Lawsuit Background
In 1990, Congress created SIJS as a means to protect vulnerable, immigrant youth who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by their parents, and to provide these vulnerable youth with a pathway to permanency in the United States. In 2008, Congress expanded many important SIJS protections for vulnerable, immigrant youth including making explicitly clear that SIJS was available to immigrant children under the age of 21 years who were abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents.
For a young person in New York to apply for SIJS, a New York Family Court must first determine that the applicant was abused, abandoned, neglected or subjected to similar maltreatment under New York State law, that the applicant cannot reunite with one or both parents, and that it’s not in the applicant’s best interest to be returned to the applicant’s country of birth. The court must also declare that the applicant is dependent on the court or place the applicant in the custody of a caretaker. This order is then submitted to USCIS as part of the SIJS application.
Without any prior announcement, USCIS narrowed its interpretation of the law starting in 2017, ultimately documenting its new policy in February 2018, which was first reported in The New York Times. Under the Trump Administration’s policy change, the federal government began to unlawfully deny class members’ petitions for relief by refusing to recognize the authority of New York family courts to issue decisions for youth ages 18-20 years old, even though New York state law authorized the family courts to do so. The USCIS policy change was implemented without any notice or any public announcement and undermined the current federal statute. The policy change effectively eliminated access to SIJS for vulnerable youth over the age of 18 despite there being no change in the federal law or regulations related to SIJS. This was a sharp departure from a decade of consistent policy, where SIJS applications filed by young immigrants under the age of 21 years in New York were consistently, and properly, granted. This new policy caused tremendous uncertainty, anxiety and other harm to children who have, by definition, already suffered significant trauma. As the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recognized, the agency’s new position had no basis in law.