A smoother but still onerous path for non-citizen juveniles

While Donald Trump uses bombast to attack immigrants, NJ Family Court has to deal with thousands of non-citizen child immigrants, many of whom lack legal representation and are unable to speak English. Although the number of children crossing our southern border has decreased, the crisis has shifted to court rooms.

As a result of this week’s NJ Supreme Court ruling the role of the NJ Family Court is clearer, and for the youth a path toward permanent residency and eventually citizenship is now more likely. As the NY Times explains, of the two main paths to winning relief from deportation, asylum is the most difficult to obtain.

Many children (or a family member representing them) instead seek relief under the “Special Immigrant Juvenile” (SIJ) status, which includes as one of its conditions that they show parental abuse, neglect or abandonment. Previously NJ family courts sought proof of such from both parents. In a unanimous decision NJ Supreme Court Judge Mary Cuff wrote that only one parent suffices.

The decision also rejected an Appellate Division ruling that had upheld a family court decision to deny an application for SIJ status. Judge Cuff wrote that when faced with a request for an SIJ order, the NJ Family Court’s sole task is to make factual findings. A family court does not have jurisdiction to grant or deny applications for immigration relief. That role belongs to the federal Immigration Court.

Nonetheless, the path for these young non-citizens remains difficult in family courts where there are too few judges. In Essex County, long suffering from insufficient judges, the family court is in the large Wilentz Justice Building where confidentiality for juvenile cases is observed, but progress can be slow. To complete the entire process requires going through state family court, federal immigration court, and the federal citizenship agency with no free governmental legal counsel available.

For another view of the problem read the Blue Jersey diary Unaccompanied kids fleeing from violence to the U.S.: A morning in NJ’s Immigration Court.

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