Some young people who suffered abuse are being denied immigration protection, lawsuit says

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Several young immigrants in Western Washington have sued the federal government, saying they’ve been or expect to be wrongfully denied a type of immigration status for youths who have suffered abuse, neglect or abandonment.

They argue that someone under 21 is eligible for the so-called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status if a state court decides that person can’t be reunited with a parent and should not return to his or her country of origin.

Last year, the lawsuit says, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services started denying the special status to youths who have turned 18.

“It’s the ones who were 18, 19 and 20 at the time the state juvenile court issues the order,” said Northwest Immigrant Rights Project attorney Matt Adams — one of the attorneys who filed the case. “That is where under the Trump administration, USCIS has said: ‘We don’t believe that the state court actually has the authority to issue this order.’”

The federal agency said it does not comment on pending litigation but did send The News Tribune a general statement about the Special Immigrant Juvenile status.

“USCIS continues to ensure that children who have required the protection of a juvenile court from parental abuse, abandonment or neglect receive the humanitarian benefits they are eligible for,” spokeswoman Jessica Collins wrote. “The agency’s highly trained and experienced officers evaluate each petition on a case-by-case basis, to determine if the petitioner qualifies for SIJ classification according to our nation’s laws and policies.”

The class-action, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, involves two Pierce County cases and one from Skagit County.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has asked the court to certify a class of up to 100 youths. Similar lawsuits have been filed in California and New York, Adams said.

“It’s hard to know the exact numbers,” he said when asked how many youths apply for the status, which congress created.

He estimates there are between several dozen and 100 people in Washington who qualify and submit the applications each year.

Of those, he said maybe 10 percent are 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.

“This is a very small group, and that’s true nationwide,” he said.

He estimated there are a few thousand youths across the country who qualify for the status and that a small portion of them have already turned 18.

The order of a state court judge doesn’t guarantee the status, Adams said. He or she still needs to file an application with USCIS and can become ineligible if they commit adult crimes, for example.

But, “generally, once you have that order, you are on the path to lawful permanent residence,” Adams said.

The three youths named in the lawsuit all suffered abuse at the hands of their parents and then came to the United States as young children or teenagers, according to the complaint.

It gives this account of their interactions with the state courts and the federal government:

Immigration and Customs Enforcement took 20-year-old Jose Luis Vicente Ramos to the immigration detention center in Tacoma after he was visiting a cousin last year and police arrived and searched the home for drugs.

”Jose had no knowledge of any drug-related activity and was not charged with any criminal offense,” the lawsuit says, but he was taken to the immigration detention center in Tacoma, where he remains.

Pierce County Superior Court appointed one of the Guatemalan citizen’s relatives as his guardian in June and at the same time entered an immigration order.

USCIS denied him the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status in February.

The Pierce County court also entered an order for 19-year-old Angel de Jesus Munoz Olivera, a 19-year-old citizen of Mexico, when the court appointed a relative as his guardian.

That was in November 2017. He has not yet gotten an answer but expects USCIS to deny his petition.

He’s in high school and does youth group activities at his church.

It was Skagit County Superior Court that entered an immigration order for 20-year-old Leobardo Moreno Galvez in 2016.

The court oversaw his custody after he was arrested for possessing alcohol as a 17-year-old and found that “reunification with both of his parents was not viable due to abuse, neglect or abandonment; and that it was not in his best interest to return to Mexico,” the lawsuit says.

USCIS denied his petition in December.

“The government’s blanket denial of SIJS for youth who obtain predicate SIJS orders after turning 18 but before the age of 21 violates the controlling statute and regulations,” the lawsuit says. “These statutory violations by USCIS punish a vulnerable class of young people, in direct contradiction to the statutory terms implemented by Congress, unlawfully denying them the opportunity to obtain lawful permanent residence and rendering them likely to be removed.”

Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.