As a child in El Salvador, Ariel was brutally bullied by the neighborhood boys—”I always expressed myself very feminine,” Ariel tells TIME—and in 2013, Ariel’s grandmother sent the 13-year-old to the United States to escape an increasingly dangerous environment. Ariel felt trapped in America. She identifies herself as nonbinary, uses the they/them pronouns and feels stuck. Sharing a house with her father proved impossible. Ariel was also undocumented, so she could not work legally or qualify for financial assistance to attend school. Ariel will be the only option in July 2020. Now 21,Moved from home to a New York City’s homeless shelter for LGBTQ young adults
Ariel was blessed with some positive news in the midst of this difficult experience. In Dec. 2020, Ariel was granted by court order a little-known designation—Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a pathway to legal residency for young undocumented people who have been abused or abandoned. This status was granted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services USCIS (USCIS) looked at first like a miracle: SIJS gave Ariel the path to green cards, which allowed her to work and live legally in the U.S.
However, then reality hit: Because of the limits USCIS has on the amount of green cards it can issue under the program each year, there is an enormous backlog. According to a trove of new USCIS data that has never been publicly available, tens of thousands of vulnerable young people, like Ariel, have been officially granted SIJS, but are being forced to wait up to five years before actually receiving their green cards—a period during which they are at extreme risk of homelessness, exploitation, and deportation, and often unable to access basic needs, like health care.
The Door, a youth advocacy nonprofit, obtained the dataset as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. It includes approximately 140,000 petitions. This data shows the SIJS backlog began to grow in 2016 and reached nearly 64,000 people by April 2020. It mainly affected children from Central American nations and Mexico. The backlog still includes more than 44,000 children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“We knew the impact [of the backlog]. We could see its impact on the lives of the young people that we represent,” Rachel Leya Davidson, managing attorney for policy and special projects at The Door, tells TIME. The new data, however, she claims, highlights the gravity of the problems they face every day. “We’re really going to be able to understand more concretely how this government is treating children who are survivors of abuse, abandonment and neglect, and what the government is and isn’t doing to ensure their protection.”
To examine the impact of data, The Door and End SIJS Backlog Coalition have partnered with the Migration Policy Institute (a nonpartisan research organisation).
Ariel believes that the backlog has an impact on everything. TIME uses a pseudonym for Ariel’s identification to keep their anonymity because they are in a vulnerable situation. “I just want to be like every other person of my age. Go to college, get a job,” Ariel says. Instead, it feels as if life is “on pause.”
What are the SIJS, and what is the backlog?
Congress created SIJS in 1990 to protect children and young people, up to age 21, who have been “abused, abandoned or neglected.” In order to qualify, young people must first obtain a juvenile court order determining that they have experienced abandonment, abuse or neglect by a parent and that being returned to their home country is not in their best interest.
“[Young people] need lawyers who can identify that they’re eligible for this protection,” says Laila Hlass is a professor of practice at Tulane Law School and one of the authors of The Door’s SIJS backlog report. “There are places where there are communities of immigration lawyers who are working with immigrant children in particular…and then there are places where there’s a scarcity of resources. So there’s just no way for those children to be identified and then represented.”
According to Hlass, data from The Door shows that not all young people have access to SIJS in certain areas. Texas makes up 6 percent of SIJS cases while Massachusetts accounts for 5 percent. However, Texas has a higher immigrant population than Massachusetts. “Children in Texas are not being able to access SIJS at the same rate that children in Massachusetts are,” Hlass says. “That’s an access to justice issue.”
A court order is required for any young person to obtain SIJS. The next step for SIJS, green cards and work permits is petitioning USCIS. Ariel sought assistance from The Door in late 2019 and an attorney initiated an SIJS request. Due to shut downs as a result of COVID-19, a court order wasn’t issued for Ariel until Dec. 2020.
USCIS says it takes 180 days to decide on a SIJS request. But, for green cards and work permits it can take more time. SIJS, which is employment-based, means that it can only issue one green card per country. This creates a SIJS backlog.
“USCIS is committed to properly administering the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) program, and the agency continues to ensure that children who have required the protection of a court from parental abuse, abandonment or neglect receive the humanitarian benefits for which they are eligible,” a USCIS spokesperson tells TIME in a statement. “USCIS is looking at several policy and procedural options to better protect those who have SIJ classification, but are not yet eligible for Lawful Permanent Residency due to statutory annual limits on visa availability.”
Ariel has been waiting a year for a green card and will likely wait three more, according The Door’s data on wait times by country of origin. On average, El Salvadorian, Honduran, and Guatemalan youth wait four years to get a greencard. According to the database, Mexico’s young population waits on average 2.5 years while other nations wait 1.5 years.
“I think it’s very unjust for there to be a backlog,” Ariel says. “We’re kids. We’re kids who’ve been through a lot.”
The threat of deportation
Chaita is a Honduran 20-year-old who has been stuck in the backlog since 2002. She and her son, four, have spent more than two years in foster care. Chaita works towards her GED while facing deportation.
According to The Door’s analysis of the SIJS data, 92% of Honduran SIJS young people who applied for green cards in or after May 2016 were in deportation proceedings, as were 90% of Guatemalan SIJS children and 84% of Salvadoran SIJS children, compared to 27% of SIJS children from other countries. Hlass points out that SIJS is managed by USCIS and is handled only by an immigration judge. Therefore, a SIJS-approved young person can be deported if they do not have their green cards.
Chaita’s smily and sunny disposition fades quickly to something more somber when she talks about why she qualifies for SIJS in the first place. As a young girl, her father was killed in Honduras. Chaita began traveling to the U.S. shortly afterwards with the survivors of her family. They arrived in 2014. She was then placed in foster custody after only a few months. “You see things on your migration to the U.S. that you never could have imagined seeing in your life,” Chaita says in Spanish. She explains that the journey took several months, and it was only 12 years ago. “You didn’t know if you were going to wake up the next morning, or if you were going to eat or if you’d go missing.” (Chaita is also being identified by a pseudonym).
She smiles when she considers the possibilities for her life if granted a green card. She is determined to travel. Brazil is her top choice. Her dream is to become a doctor.
The backlog is over.
Maria Huerta Rodriguez, 23, received her greencard in February 2021 after she had waited 2.5 years for the SIJS backlog. She’s employed at The Door helping other SIJS applicants and preparing to go to school to study political science. She realizes she’s lucky, she says, because while Huerta Rodriguez was waiting in the SIJS backlog she was not subject to deportation because she was a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which also allowed her to work and support her two children.
Ariel and Chaita don’t meet the qualifications for DACA because of when they arrived in the U.S.
Huerta Rodriguez helped create the SIJS Backlog Report at The Door. She interviewed others currently in the SIJS queue. “I consider my story to be sad and harsh, and it’s nothing compared to what I heard,” Huerta Rodriguez tells TIME.
Ariel can be found on FaceTime in New York from their shelter. “She’s just like the main support that I have,” Ariel says. “I tell her everything that happens, everything about me.” When that green card arrives, Ariel can’t wait to see her again.