IMMIGRANT YOUTH IN CRISIS: Struggles of Unaccompanied Youth from Central America in Washington State

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In 2014, there was a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied youth–minors without lawful immigration status who entered the United States without a parent or legal guardian–from Central America journeying to the United States. Since then over 1,400 unaccompanied immigrant youth have been placed with Washington State sponsors for the duration of their immigration proceedings. Many of these youth may have been eligible for a special immigration status in the United States but were not informed of this option, were not provided legal representation, and were forced to return to the dangerous situations they were fleeing.

The unaccompanied youth endured the journey to the United States for a variety of reasons. Some faced death threats or sex trafficking at home. Our report, Immigrant Youth in Crisis: Struggles of Unaccompanied Youth from Central America in Washington State, sheds light on the gaps within Washington State's systems for protecting unaccompanied immigrant youth and proposes concrete changes to mend the gaps.

"Unaccompanied youth from Central America risk their lives when they journey from their home countries to come to the United States," says Diana Garcia, an attorney with the Children & Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services and the author of the report. “We should be upholding our values, including due process and keeping youth safe, by protecting the rights of unaccompanied youth in Washington State and working to break down as many barriers as possible so they can succeed.”

When unaccompanied youth from Central America are caught at the United States border, the Department of Homeland Security holds them in immigration detention facilities and then releases them to a suitable sponsor, if available. They are placed in deportation proceedings and removed from the United States unless they obtain immigration relief. For many of these youth, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) is the only path available to obtain immigration status. SIJS is a form of protection for immigrant children without legal status who cannot be reunited with one or both of their parents and whose best interest is not to return to their country. SIJS is unique in that it takes into account the youth’s best interest and it involves both civil law and immigration law. Before submitting an SIJS petition to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, SIJS findings must be obtained from a state juvenile court. A recommendation in Immigrant Youth in Crisis calls for a clarification for judges on what their role is in issuing SIJS findings in family law cases.

While in Washington, unaccompanied youth are denied rights that are available to all youth regardless of their immigration status. Among other things, unaccompanied youth can become displaced and homeless, and they are unable to access health care or obtain an identification card.

Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a bill that addresses one of several recommendations outlined in the report. The Washington State Legislature recently passed HB 1988 which would help align state law with federal law by allowing certain youth, who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by a parent, access to the court for the appointment of a vulnerable youth guardian. Without this change, these youth would have been excluded from existing federal protection simply due to living in Washington. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and Columbia Legal Services, who had worked together to advocate for the passage of the legislation, applaud the work of the legislature and the Governor on this important issue.