ILAP Testimony in Support of LD 1596: An Act To Enhance the Long-term Stability of Certain At-Risk Youth
Good afternoon, Senator Carpenter, Representative Bailey, and distinguished members of the Committee on Judiciary. Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of LD 1596.
My name is Julia Brown. I am the Advocacy and Outreach Attorney at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP). ILAP is Maine’s only statewide nonprofit provider of immigration law and related legal aid to Maine’s low-income residents. On behalf of ILAP and our clients, I ask the Committee to vote “ought to pass” on LD 1596, otherwise known as “An Act To Enhance the Long-term Stability of Certain At-Risk Youth.”
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or “SIJS,” is a vital immigration benefit for vulnerable noncitizen children under the age of twenty-one who cannot be reunited with one or both of their parents due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect. If a child qualifies for SIJS, he or she will have a clear pathway to lawful permanent residence (obtaining a green card). Ultimately, of course, the federal immigration agency or immigration court determines whether the child meets SIJS requirements for a green card. However, the immigration laws deliberately vest state courts with the authority to make required predicate findings, due to the state courts’ expertise in determining the best interest of a child.
At ILAP, we prioritize SIJS cases, because they involve the most vulnerable clients of all – abused, neglected, or abandoned children. However, due to the age gap between Maine law and federal law, we often have to turn away children who meet every criterion for SIJS, except for the fact that they are no longer under eighteen, but still under twenty-one years of age. Indeed, the length of time it takes to obtain a predicate order from a Maine state court means that we sometimes must turn away someone who is months away from turning eighteen. These are children who have suffered abuse, neglect, or abandonment, and have a clear path to immigration relief that is blocked by the arbitrary age gap between Maine law and the federal immigration laws providing that relief.
It is incredibly unfair that in Maine, an eighteen, nineteen, or twenty year old who has been abused, neglected, or abandoned, is completely barred from seeking SIJS simply because he or she did not reach a Maine court prior to their eighteenth birthday. Immigrant youth are often unaware of their immigration status (or lack thereof) until they turn eighteen and graduate high school. It is often when they are applying to college and for jobs that they learn that they are no longer in lawful status.
It is our experience that numerous children in Maine have come here on their own, fleeing horrendous situations in their home country, or have been brought to Maine by family members at a young age. Some of these children do not even remember any other home, and have accomplished as much as any other Maine child by the time they turn age eighteen. Unfortunately, for most of our SIJS clients, they have no alternate method of attaining permanent legal status in the United States. This age gap forces children who are completely qualified for SIJS but for their age under Maine law, to live in the shadows, unable to legally work. Justice demands that this bill is passed in order to give these children the avenue they need to gain permanent status in the United States.
You have the opportunity to change the lives of these young individuals who live, go to school, and want to work in Maine. This is the only way most of them can live a full, productive life in Maine. I therefore ask the Committee to vote “ought to pass” on LD 1596.
Thank you and I welcome any questions.