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Govt. Officials Sued Over Handling of Special Immigrant Juvenile Provisions

The United States, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Homeland Security and other high-ranking authorities are facing a proposed class action claiming they have unlawfully and intentionally delayed ruling on applications for special immigrant juvenile status with the intent of sending the children back to their home countries.

The United States of America, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and several other top-tier officials are the defendants in a proposed class action lawsuit that claims they are breaking federal law by indefinitely detaining children ostensibly eligible for special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status until the point when they can be sent back to their countries of origin. Filed in Pennsylvania by four immigrant parents on behalf of their children, the 35-page lawsuit alleges the defendants have unlawfully failed to respond to 8,674 special immigrant juvenile status applications filed over the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017.

“In defiance of common sense, clear Congressional intent, applicable case law, and even a mere scintilla of human decency, [the defendants], without justification and/or authorization, continue to illegally and indefinitely detain SIJ children up to and until the point at which the defendants can ship the kids back ‘home’—places [the defendants] previously determined would not be in the children’s best interest to be returned to,” the plaintiffs allege.

What Is Special Immigrant Juvenile Status?

In 1990, a Congressional decision enacted special protections for children deemed to be abused, abandoned or neglected. Under these protections, the lawsuit says, immigrant children who meet the requirements for special immigrant juvenile status are, under the word of the law, essentially paroled into the United States and are therefore entitled to apply for an adjustment of the SIJ status to “that of an immigrant lawfully admitted for permanent residence.” These protections were broadened by Congress in 2008.

The lawsuit describes the process for children to obtain SIJ status:

“Immigrants seeking protection as Special Immigrant Juveniles thus follow a two-step process to obtain SIJ Status. First, the immigrant must obtain a predicate order from a juvenile court. Second, the immigrant must file an I-306 Petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

Where Do the Parents of Immigrant Children Come in?

Taken into consideration during the process of applying for SIJ status is whether reunification of the child with one or both parents exists as a legitimate option. A deciding factor in whether a child may be given SIJ protection is if reunification with one or both parents is not viable. Similarly, a child may apply for SIJ status when “reunification with one parent is viable but not with the other on account of abuse, neglect, or abandonment,” the lawsuit says.

Fleeing from Potential Gang Retaliation

The allegations made on behalf of the four juvenile plaintiffs, whose ages range from three to 16 years old, are as frightening as they are eye-opening. A common thread among each plaintiff’s claims is the threat of retaliatory gang violence in their respective home countries of Honduras and El Salvador. According to the case, conditions were—and, per the allegations, still are—so perilous for the plaintiffs and their guardians in these countries because the Honduran and El Salvadorian governments ostensibly cannot protect individuals who express opposition to gang violence. 

The Plaintiffs’ Alleged Experiences

While the details of each plaintiff’s experience vary slightly, they’re all remarkably similar in alleging that each child and his or her guardian fled their home country for the United States, only to be apprehended and then detained ostensibly without regard to the circumstances behind their immigration or federal law outlining situational exceptions—i.e. when a child may be eligible for SIJ status—that seemingly supercede federal authorities’ go-to “expedited removal” procedure.

The case depicts this very situation for a three-year-old plaintiff and his mother, who allegedly fled Honduras in 2015 after being threatened “by the wife of her son’s father” whose family the complaint says is associated with a “notorious transnational criminal organization”:

“During their year-and-a-half in detention, [the juvenile plaintiff and his mother] received Custody Review Decisions every 60 to 90 days. Each of these Custody Review Decisions was categorically denied by ICE, in which ICE put forth the same boilerplate language. There was nothing written on any form which would indicate that ICE had taken into account mother or child’s individual facts and circumstances before categorically denying their release from detention. To the contrary, given that ICE issued several decisions before the deadline for petitioners to submit supporting documentation, it seems certain they did not consider any individual facts related to petitioners.

In none of the defendants’ perfunctory ‘custody reviews’ did the defendants ever alleged or show that [the three-year-old plaintiff] and his mom are a flight risk, or likely to commit a crime—their prolonged and indefinite detention bears no reasonable relationship to any possible justification for detaining them.”

Who Was Named in the Lawsuit?

The lawsuit lists the following entities and individuals as defendants:

  • The United States of America – The case notes specifically all government agencies and departments responsible for the implementation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and detention and/or removal of non-citizen immigrants.

  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security – The cabinet agency responsible for enforcing the INA and overseeing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is charged with detaining and/or removing illegal immigrants.

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions – Responsible for the government’s interpretation of the INA and, under the law, the legal custodian of the plaintiffs.

  • Thomas D. Homan – Acting Director of ICE with director oversight of the agency.

  • Thomas Decker – Field office director for ICE’s Philadelphia District.

  • Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly – Oversees U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Another legal custodian of the plaintiffs.

  • Diane Edwards – Executive Director of the Berks County Residential Center.

Who Does the Lawsuit Hope to Cover?

The class of individuals proposed to be covered by the litigation is preliminarily defined as all “current and future persons with or applying for SIJ status in or potentially subject to expedited removal proceedings and/or subject to a final order of expedited removal.”

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