State, National Children’s Groups Applaud New Legislation Protecting Abuse and Neglect Victims from Deportation

November 4, 2011
Ed Walz 202-445-4312

Washington – More than 80 state and national organizations led by the First Focus Campaign for Children today endorsed the Foster Opportunity Act. The bill, introduced by Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA) and eight other lawmakers, increases the likelihood that immigrant children removed from their parents’ custody because of concerns about abuse or neglect will be protected by immigration law benefits already in place.

“The Foster Opportunity Act ensures that kids who lived in fear of abuse and neglect as children don’t have to live in fear of deportation as adults,” said First Focus Campaign for Children President Bruce Lesley.

In 2008, Congress created a special nonimmigrant status in federal immigration law. This Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) allows children brought to the United States, then placed in foster care by state governments to protect them from abuse or neglect, to remain lawfully in the U.S. Children granted SIJS are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after five years. An estimated 12,000 undocumented immigrant children are living in foster care, nationwide.

SIJS is not well known to child welfare agency officials or to judges and other court officers. As a result, many eligible children never get SIJS protections. If they do not obtain SIJS or other immigration relief options before age 18 (or, in some cases, 21), these children must either surrender for deportation to a country they barely remember or remain unlawfully in the U.S. Those who remain cannot get jobs or a college education and are often forced underground because they can’t get driver’s licenses or other identity documents.

“Immigration law already promises kids victimized by abuse or neglect a chance at a productive life, but for too many, it’s an empty promise,” said Lesley.

Congressman Stark’s Foster Opportunity Act, H.R. 3333, makes the existing immigration law work better for child abuse or neglect victims, by creating complementary protections. It authorizes federal agencies to inform state child welfare agencies and court officials about SIJS, and it requires child welfare agencies to screen immigrant children in foster care for SIJS eligibility. It clarifies that the federal government will reimburse state and local governments for costs they incurred providing care for kids who qualify for SIJS. And it ensures that SIJS-eligible children can qualify for federal health, nutrition, and other benefits without the five-year waiting period imposed on other immigrants.

“Allowing abused and neglected children to leave our foster care system and face deportation is completely unacceptable. The status quo must change. This legislation will enable us to better fulfill our responsibility to all foster children and provide immigrant youth with an opportunity to succeed in this country after leaving care. With the invaluable help of child advocacy groups like First Focus, we will make this legislation a reality,” said Rep. Stark, who serves as Ranking Member on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee.

The First Focus Campaign for Children led more than 80 state and national organizations in commending Congressman Stark and the bill’s co-sponsors for introducing this important legislation. The text of their endorsement letter and the complete list of signatories is attached below.

“We thank Congressman Stark and his colleagues for working together to give immigrant kids living in foster care a fighting chance at leading healthy and productive adult lives,” said Lesley.

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The First Focus Campaign for Children is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization affiliated with First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization. The Campaign for Children advocates directly for legislative change in Congress to ensure children and families are a priority in federal policy and budget decisions. For more information, visit www.ffcampaignforchildren.org .

We are writing to thank you for your leadership on and continued attention to the needs of America’s children, and to express our support for the Foster Children Opportunity Act. As representatives of organizations committed to improving the health and well-being of children and families, we are pleased that the Foster Children Opportunity Act seeks to ensure that abused and neglected immigrant children have an opportunity to obtain the legal immigrant status to which they are entitled prior to aging out of the foster care system.
Immigrant children involved in the child welfare system are often eligible for special forms of immigration relief, including Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) but early identification is critical given that a child can lose SIJS eligibility once the court terminates jurisdiction over the youth. More often than not, court and child welfare officials are unaware of immigration relief options available, leaving these children at risk of deportation at any time and drastically limiting their educational and work opportunities when they “age out” of the system.

Sadly, each year, many undocumented children age out of the child welfare system without the opportunity to obtain legal immigrant status. On exiting the system, they often lose their only chance to gain legal status and leave the foster care system in a state of limbo, lacking the lawful status necessary to succeed in the U.S. They face a daily risk of deportation, are unable to obtain employment authorization, a driver’s license, access to benefits and in most states, are not eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

Child welfare staff, judges, attorneys and other service providers play a critical role in the lives of these young people. It is essential that they are knowledgeable about immigration issues and SIJS in particular, and has access to the training and resources necessary to fully protect all children in its care.

The Foster Children Opportunity Act aims to ensure that all children in the foster care system are screened for SIJS and other immigration relief options. The bill provides needed technical assistance to child welfare agencies and resources to train judges, attorneys and other legal workers on this matter. It also clarifies that a state can obtain reimbursement for the foster care costs of a child once the child obtains SIJS status and ensures that children who receive SIJS are exempted from the 5 year ban placed on receiving Federal means-tested public benefits.

This Act seeks to protect abused and neglected children by ensuring they have a fighting chance at leading healthy and productive lives when they exit the child welfare system. We are grateful for your leadership in introducing the Foster Children Opportunity Act, and we look forward to working with you to ensure passage of this critical legislation.

Sincerely,

Action for Children North Carolina
Advocates for Children and Youth
American Humane Association
America’s Promise Alliance
Arkansas Voices for Children Left Behind
Arizona Council of Human Services Providers
Asian American Justice Center, Member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice
California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation
Casa Esperanza
Center for Public Policy Priorities
Child Welfare League of America (CWLA)
Children First for Oregon
Children's Action Alliance
Children’s Advocacy Institute
Children’s Home Society of NC
Children's Law Center of Los Angeles
Community Action Partnership
Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption
ECPAT-USA
First Focus Campaign for Children
Florida Equal Justice Center
Foster Family-Based Treatment Association
Georgia Rural Urban Summit
Global Family Legal Services
Gulfcoast Legal Services, Inc.
Human Rights Initiative of North Texas
Immigrant Legal Resource Center
Juvenile Law Center
Kids In Need of Defense (KIND)
Larkin Street Youth Services
LatinoJustice PRLDEF
Latinos for Education & Justice Organization, Inc
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Maine Children's Alliance
Maternal and Child Health Access
Medical Legal Partnership at Florida State University College of Law
Mental Health America
Michigan State University College of Law Immigration Law Clinic
Michigan's Children
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth
National CASA Association
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
National Immigrant Justice Center
National Immigration Law Center
National Policy Partnership for Children of Incarcerated Parents
New Mexico Voices for Children
New Mexico Women's Justice Project
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
Our Bodies Ourselves
PB&J Family Services, Inc, Albuquerque New Mexico
Pegasus Legal Services for Children
Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children
Project IRENE
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services
Rhode Island KIDS COUNT
Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center
School Social Work Association of America
STANDUP FOR KIDS
Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey
Sue Cares
TASH
Texans Care for Children
The Children’s Partnership
The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, Inc.
The National Center for Adoption Law & Policy
The National Center for Lesbian Rights
The New Mexico Council on Crime and Delinquency
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Voices for America’s Children
Voices for Utah Children
Voices for Virginia's Children
Woman's Foundation of California
Women of Reform Judaism
Women's Refugee Commission
Youth Law Center

Contact:
Ed Walz
202-445-4312 (office)
edw@firstfocus.net