Backlog for abused young immigrants waiting for green cards has doubled, advocates say

A backlog in cases of abused or abandoned young immigrants seeking green cards has more than doubled in the last two years, according to a new analysis of federal data by advocacy groups that was shared exclusively with NBC News.

More than 100,000 foreign-born young people with “special immigrant juvenile” status, a pathway to legal residency, are waiting to obtain green cards, the End SIJS Backlog Coalition and Tulane Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic said in the report released Monday. That figure is up from nearly 45,000 in 2021, the organizations said.

By law, immigrants under age 21 who have been “abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent” may be eligible for special immigrant juvenile status. Those who receive the designation are automatically eligible to apply for a green card, or lawful permanent residency.

“Congress created this protection to really improve the lives of vulnerable immigrant children, and it’s not really working in the way it was supposed to,” said Laila Hlass, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Tulane Law and co-author of the report. “In fact, it’s often making children’s lives more uncertain because of these waiting periods.”

As of March 1, more than 107,000 youths from 151 countries “are trapped in a legal limbo, unable to obtain permanent protection even after being granted humanitarian status,” according to the report, which is based on data obtained from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services through a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent litigation. The young people in the report have been approved for special immigrant juvenile status but have not been able to access green cards.

“They’re going to have to wait an indeterminate number of years, five years or probably more, in order to be able to seek permanency in the form of a green card,” Hlass said.

In the meantime, they can’t access federal student aid or federal health care programs and fear deportation without the protections of lawful permanent residency, the advocacy groups said.

An immigrant from the country of Georgia who has SIJ status and has been waiting for a green card for a year and a half said he is beginning to lose hope that he will ever become a legal U.S. resident.

“I’m 22 right now and all the plans that I’ve had, they are put off indefinitely,” said the young man, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal in his immigration case.

He came to the U.S. after fleeing a physically violent father and discrimination for being a member of the LGBTQ community. He said he was beaten and hospitalized shortly before coming to the U.S. for participating in a Pride parade.

“I feel like I ran away from so many problems that I had in terms of being accepted for who I was and everything that I had to go through with my family, but here I am introduced to further, bigger problems,” he said. “It still is too much.”

The immigrant rights groups are calling for immigration authorities to adjudicate cases for immigrants applying for the special status within a 180-day deadline and for Congress to take action they say would help the young immigrants obtain the green cards without the lengthy backlog.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says on its website that it “generally” adjudicates petitions for SIJ classification within 180 days, but that the time frame “does not apply” to adjudicating a green card based on SIJ status.

“USCIS works hard to issue decisions on properly filed petitions for SIJ classification within 180 days,” the agency said in statement Monday following the release of the report, adding that it has taken “several steps to achieve this goal.” They include increasing the number of officers adjudicating petitions, reviewing its workflow process and redistributing some of the national office’s workload to field offices.

“USCIS adjudicates each application and petition for immigration benefits fairly, humanely, and efficiently on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards and eligibility criteria required under applicable laws, regulations, and policies, and the agency remains committed to breaking down barriers in the immigration system, increasing access to eligible immigration benefits and upholding America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve,” the agency said.

The immigrant rights groups said in the report that the youths face two bottlenecks, first in having their SIJ petitions approved and then in applying for lawful permanent residence based on their status.

“Over the last five years, the average time for USCIS to approve a SIJS petition was 337 days, approaching double the 180-day legal limit for issuing a decision,” the report said.

“More recently, in the 2023 fiscal year, the average time USCIS has taken to approve a case is 263 days, which, although an improvement, is still in violation of the law,” according to the report.

Even after youtsh are approved for SIJ status, “they will then have to wait years to be eligible to seek” lawful permanent residency, and USCIS “often takes years to approve” those cases as well, the report said.

The reason for the backlog, the advocates say, is a limit on how many green cards USCIS can award annually under the program, which has country-specific quotas. SIJ status falls under the EB-4 visa for “special immigrants,” which also includes religious workers, current and former U.S. government employees abroad, and certain officers and employees of international organizations.

“These kids are now competing for visas with other folks who are coming to this country seeking work-related status, and that makes no sense for humanitarian protection to be in that same category,” Rachel Davidson, director of the End SIJS Backlog Coalition and co-author of the report, said.

Since 2016, this disproportionately affected youths from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to the report. In late March, the State Department issued a rule changing its interpretation of the visa caps for those Central American countries.

And in 2022, the Biden administration announced new policies intended to make it easier for people with SIJ status to remain in the country and work while their cases are pending.

Advocates say they welcome these changes, but that they do not go far enough, and are calling on Congress to exclude the SIJ status from the visa limits in the employment-based system.

“This issue is completely solvable,” Davidson said.

In June, congressional Democrats introduced a bill to “eliminate employment-based visa caps on abused, abandoned, and neglected children eligible for humanitarian status, and for other purposes.”

The House version of the bill is sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Jimmy Gomez of California as well as Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York.

“I cannot sit idly by as vulnerable immigrant children are left behind due to an administrative backlog,” Gomez said in a statement to NBC News on Friday. “Immigrant children and teens who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected are disproportionately susceptible to homelessness, wage theft, trafficking, and deportation.”

Gomez said the bill would “cut through red tape in the visa backlog to give young at-risk immigrants the opportunity to earn a living wage and start their lives in the United States.”

The measure has yet to be taken up by the GOP-led House of Representatives.