Victory for Immigrant Youth Sets National Precedent

SIREN rally in the Bay Area

By Bree Bernwanger

With new horror stories arriving daily from the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s easy to lose sight of the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrant communities closer to home. It’s also easy to miss the victories being won at the state level to protect them. But the federal government has just agreed to settle a California lawsuit that has sweeping implications for thousands of immigrant youth.

Under federal law, immigrant youth under age 21 who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected, declared to be court-dependent or placed in a custodial relationship with an adult, and for whom a state juvenile court, like the California Probate Court, has made certain underlying findings are eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a form of humanitarian immigration relief that offers a path to permanent lawful immigration status in the United States.

Last fall, however, the Trump administration overstepped its bounds and implemented, with no notice to the public, a policy resulting in the denial of petitions from 18 to 20-year-old immigrants throughout the country, including in California. Without this protected status, young Californians like our client “J.L.,” who was abandoned by her parents as an infant and brought to the United States as a toddler, were left vulnerable to arrest and deportation.

This wasn’t just unfair – it was illegal. LCCR, together with our colleagues at Public Counsel and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, promptly filed a class-action lawsuit against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on behalf of all 18 to 20-year-old immigrants in California who had been placed in the care of guardians and for whom a California Probate Court had issued the legally-required eligibility findings for SIJS. On October 24, 2018, Magistrate Judge Nathanael M. Cousins of the Northern District of California granted Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, holding that the new policy likely violated the Constitution and federal law. Judge Cousins subsequently allowed the case to proceed as a class action and denied the government’s motion to dismiss.

Now, just over one year after the preliminary injunction, J.L. v. Cuccinelli is nearing resolution. A federal district judge preliminarily approved a settlement on October 30th. Under the settlement, all eligible 18 to 20-year-old Californians will have their access to SIJS restored and receive additional protections aimed at preventing any further delay. Those whose petitions were illegally denied will have them re-adjudicated.

Our final approval hearing is set for December. But in the meantime, lawsuits building on our precedent in New Jersey, Washington, and Massachusetts continue apace. Together, these legal challenges could shield thousands of immigrant youth from Trump’s deportation machine.

This win is just the latest reminder that you don’t have to go to the border to protect immigrants’ rights.  This administration’s xenophobic policies cut through our neighborhoods, our schools, and our homes, harming members of our community. The fight to bring down the walls our immigration system has erected, both literal and invisible, extends from the border to our own backyards.

Bree Bernwanger is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.