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Trump administration reportedly changes rule on green cards that could affect thousands

The Trump administration has linked Special Immigrant Juvenile status recipients with the MS-13 gang.

Central American immigrants sit after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on December 8, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)
Central American immigrants sit after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on December 8, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Trump administration appears to have lowered the age limit for a legal immigration status granted to certain young people under the age of 21 who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by their parents, the New York Times reported Wednesday. The publication found that several people between the ages of 18 and 21 have been unable to proceed with their petitions and are now ineligible for green cards.

The federal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency allows some young people — who can prove that they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent — to apply for the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status. If the classification is granted, people may then qualify for lawful permanent status, or a green card. But as the New York Times reported, applicants in New York over the age of 18 and under the age of 21 have seen their applications denied “because of an unannounced policy reversal by the Trump administration.”

The SIJ status designation was originally meant for a small group of children of undocumented parents who were declared dependent by state juvenile courts, according to the Congressional Research Service. Legal groups helped familiarize the public with the status beginning in late 2013 when large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children began showing up on the southern U.S. border. Many had fled gang violence and extreme poverty, while others fled deadly situations at home. Between 2005 and 2013, the Congressional Research Service reported, there was a tenfold increase in the number of children requesting the SIJ status. SIJ status applications “hit 19,475 in the 2016 fiscal year,” Reuters reported.

At least 81 SIJ applicants from the New York City area “have been denied or were told they would soon be denied by the immigration agency,” according to The Legal Aid Society of New York which spoke with the New York Times. And “in total, more than 1,000 young people across the state, not all of them from Central America, could be affected.”

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According to the publication, the Trump administration appears to be “reinterpreting” the policy and saying that applicants over the age of 18 but under 21 do not qualify for the status because “family courts lack jurisdiction over the person’s custody” at the age of 18. These in-between young immigrants can have guardians, but the USCIS agency do not consider guardians the same as “custody.”

“Nothing in the federal statutes has changed; only the interpretation has changed,” Beth Krause, the supervising attorney for the Immigrant Youth Project at The Legal Aid Society of New York, told the publication. “And now, U.S.C.I.S. is interpreting this in a way to cut out a very large portion of kids who, until the past couple of weeks, had gotten these grants under the same facts.”

Since last year, the Trump administration has linked recipients of this particular immigration status with criminal immigrants affiliated with the MS-13 gang. When President Donald Trump gave a speech in Long Island, New York, he cast “alien minors” as “animals” who committed gruesome, gang-related killings in the country. Harsh critics of the SIJ status have also linked the process with fraudulent claims of children being abandoned by their parents. At the same time, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has taken special care to announce enforcement operations where federal agents have swept up SIJ status recipients in their efforts to bust transnational gangs.

Under Trump, lawyers have also seen a slow-down in SIJ status approvals. Between April and June 2017, approvals totaled 1,862, or less than half of the total number approved from the previous three-month period, Reuters reported at the time.

“U.S.C.I.S. has not issued any new guidance or policy directives regarding the adjudication of S.I.J. petitions,” Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for the federal agency, told the New York Times. “We remain committed to adjudicating each petition individually based on the merits of the case and safeguarding the integrity of our lawful immigration system.”