Children’s Rights and partners Bass, Berry & Sims PLC and McDermott Will & Emery LLP, filed a lawsuit against Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) on behalf of immigrant minor children placed in Tennessee’s foster system and Advocates for Immigrants Rights (AIR), a nonprofit law firm that provides legal services to immigrants.
The complaint asserts that Tennessee—which has one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the US—is failing in its legal responsibility to ensure that immigrant youth are able to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a type of immigration relief that confers critical benefits to young people.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) was established in 1990 to create a pathway to lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) for immigrant children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by their parents or guardians. Children who receive SIJS have faced horrific conditions in their home countries, leaving them unable to return and often with few resources here in the U.S.
The complaint alleges that Tennessee lacks policies, training materials, guidance, or procedures on screening youth to determine eligibility for pathways to legally-sanctioned immigration relief or services. As a result, children like named plaintiffs L.T. and B.R. are put at great risk. If their immigration needs are not identified by the time they reach the age of 18, it is too late for them to obtain the lawful status and attendant benefits for which they would have been eligible.
Without lawful status youth are under constant threat of detention and deportation, resulting in separation from their families and communities in the United States. They are also unable to work legally, and are ineligible for many benefits—like some forms of healthcare, student financial aid, and other public assistance.
This is the story of an 11-year old named plaintiff L.T: He was born in Honduras and came to the US with family members when he was about five years old. He entered state custody in 2021 after his mother abandoned him at a hospital. In 2022, he was placed with his current foster mother and her husband. For the past year, he has been thriving in their home.
L.T. is likely eligible for SIJS. Yet DCS, his legal guardian, has not addressed L.T.’s immigration-related needs. The agency repeatedly ignores his foster mother’s requests for information and support, causing delays in the SIJS process as well as impeding access to timely healthcare and other services for L.T.
DCS has taken no steps to monitor whether a removal case has been initiated against L.T. If he is summoned to appear in immigration court, he and his foster family risk missing hearings or being unprepared for a hearing, which could result in L.T.’s detention or removal from the US.