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Meet 2 Central American Refugee Kids Who Are Stuck In The U.S. Immigration System

21 Apr

FALLS CHURCH, VIRGINIA — David and Alex, two Guatemalan teenage cousins, were part of the wave of unaccompanied children who arrived in the United States from Central America starting in late 2013. They separately entered the country one year and seven months apart to leave dire poverty and to reunite with family in Virginia. David, who requested his real name not be used, surrendered to Texas border agents in May 2014; Alex surrendered in December 2015. David has legal representation; Alex, not yet. Both attend school, are quickly picking up the English language, and have aspirations of one day making money to support their families back home.

Both teens likely qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a legal designation that is the first step for immigrants to apply for a green card. A green card is needed to access benefits open to other legal immigrants in the country, like a driver’s license or employment opportunities.

But life in the U.S. may soon prove more difficult for both teenagers. Beginning next month, the federal government will change a rule in its visa guidelines that would leave kids like David and Alex stuck in limbo — potentially for years — as they wait to apply for green cards to stay in the country legally.

The rule change will place David and Alex in an immigration category that has an annual global quota of about 10,000 green cards (in the 2016 fiscal year, that number was 9,961). Only seven percent, or 700 green cards, are issued per country, a number that falls short of accommodating approved SIJS Central American children who came to the U.S. in recent years.

Many of those SIJS applicants primarily come from three Central American countries — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — where children are fleeing soaring homicide rates, gang violence, and crippling poverty.

“It was very hard to leave my mom,” Alex told ThinkProgress through a translator. He began fidgeting in his seat while David clicked his headphones on and off nearby to play an indiscernible pop song. “Out of necessity, I had to leave.” He explained that he wanted to work as soon as possible so that he could provide for his family back in Guatemala.

Alex said that he was treated poorly once he was detained at an immigration facility in Texas, having to deal with border agents who harassed him. Poverty was what ultimately drove him to come to the U.S., but he also mentioned gang violence as a factor.

“There’s a difference when I go to school and take the bus,” David, the more shy of the pair, said. “In Guatemala, there was no bus. There’s also no gangs [here].”

Alex hopes to be a construction worker one day while David aspires to be an English language teacher so that he can “teach other students” the same subject he has grown to love.

Not all unaccompanied children qualify or even apply for SIJS (others apply for asylum or some form of humanitarian visa). About 3,434 SIJS applications were approved in 2013, a number that may have gone up since border agents began noticing a so-called “surge” of children along the southwest U.S. border in 2014 and 2015.

Still, the annual green card quota will likely be met by the end of fiscal year 2016. Already, the U.S. Department of State’s visa bulletin explained that those approved as SIJS beneficiaries after next month would have to wait until the following fiscal year to apply for their green cards.

Lawyers and advocates estimate that applicants from each of the three Central American countries reach their annual quota of 700 eligible green card applicants every two months. They fear that the quota will likely be met every time, meaning that every two months, SIJS kids would have to wait until the following year to apply for their green cards.

“By December of this year, the backlog will already be multi-year,” Nicholas Marritz, an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center based in Virginia who represents Alex, estimated. “Kids may be stalled out four or five years. [If someone is applying in December 2016], that person would have to wait until October 2020 before anyone gets green cards.”

For David, Alex, and other SIJS applicants who may not yet be on track to receive their green cards, the visa rule change highlights the long, arduous process faced by immigrants trying to stay in the country legally.

David and Alex do not currently have SIJS or green cards. And in fact, a SIJS designation doesn’t protect teen immigrants from deportation, though it’s likely that those people would already be considered low-priority for deportations anyway. But without being put on a pathway to a green card, they would not be able to move ahead in the same way as their peers.

“During that time, they can’t work and drive,” Marritz said, explaining that the SIJS designation doesn’t provide employment authorization. “They’re going to be left behind while the rest of their peers go on and are able to realize their full potential. These kids will be stalled out because of our broken immigration system that will force them to wait based on an artificial cap.”

There may be a workaround to the imminent backlog. The Obama administration could grant deferred action for this category of kids so that they can have work authorization in the country, Marritz noted, explaining that there’s precedent for this with U-Visa beneficiaries, or victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, who have been given two-year work permits.

Marritz said that giving kids the ability to work is “in everybody’s interest — both socially and economically for the U.S. in terms of their human development.”

“Why don’t we let them use that time to keep up with their peers, to earn a living, to get an education, and to contribute to the health and well-being of their families and communities,” Marritz said. “These are kids who going to become Americans. We should start treating them like it.”