Tennessee Agrees To Provide Immigration Services To Foster Youth In State Care

NASHVILLE, TN – On February 12, 2024, U.S. District Judge William L. Campbell granted final approval of a settlement agreement that requires the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to support immigrant children in DCS custody by identifying and addressing their immigration-related needs. The state has agreed to identify children who may be eligible to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a type of immigration relief that confers critical benefits to young people. 

“We are pleased that we were able to work with the state to reach a quick and comprehensive resolution to our case,” said Leecia Welch, Deputy Litigation Director, Children’s Rights. “DCS’s new policies will open doors for young people in Tennessee.”

The settlement agreement requires DCS to create a comprehensive policy to support immigrant youth in custody with SIJS applications and removal cases, laying the groundwork   for Tennessee to provide robust support to children in state care by:

Children’s Rights, along with partners Bass, Berry & Sims PLC and McDermott Will & Emery LLP brought the lawsuit on behalf of immigrant children placed in Tennessee’s foster system and Advocates for Immigrants Rights (AIR), a nonprofit law firm that provides legal services to immigrants. 

“We’re thrilled with this settlement as it requires DCS to address the unique immigration-related needs of children in the foster-care system,” said Paul Thompson, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP. “This settlement underscores the importance of safeguarding the rights and well-being of all children, regardless of their immigration status.”

SIJS was created by Congress in 1990 to provide humanitarian protection for abused, neglected, or abandoned child immigrants, and provides a pathway for them to obtain lawful permanent resident (LPR, or “green card”) status and United States citizenship. Many foreign-born children in foster care custody are eligible for SIJS status. For years eligible children have fallen through the cracks, but now the settlement agreement sets out a process for DCS to ensure eligible children can complete the full SIJS application process.

When children’s immigration needs are not identified by the time they reach the age of 18, it is too late for them to obtain SIJS and the 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 also are barred from obtaining lawful work status, driver’s licenses, and public benefits including financial aid for higher education. Because of these barriers, children who age out without SIJS status face the risk of poverty, exploitation, dependency on abusive adults, and limited socioeconomic mobility—the very harms that SIJS was created to avoid.

15-year-old A.B., one of three named plaintiffs in the case, was born in Honduras and came to the U.S. six years ago and was later placed in state custody with a foster family. “I am so happy about this settlement. With assistance from DCS to complete my SIJS application, I hope to be able to get a part-time job and my driver’s license. It makes me feel so good that I have been part of something that will give other children the same chance,” said A.B.  

Casey Bryant, Executive Director, Advocates for Immigrants Rights, said, “Through this settlement, our counsel and partners have helped to ensure that there is adequate infrastructure in Tennessee to provide for the best interests of all children in foster care. We have already seen incredible advances in the way the agency is working to address the unique needs of non-citizen children.”

For more information on the case and to view the legal documents, visit our case page.


About McDermott Will & Emery

McDermott Will & Emery partners with leaders around the world to fuel missions, knock down barriers and shape markets. Our team works seamlessly across practices and industries to deliver highly effective solutions that propel success. More than 1,400 lawyers strong, we bring our personal passion and legal prowess to bear in every matter for our clients and the people they serve.

About Advocates for Immigrant Rights

Advocates for Immigrant Rights is a nonprofit organization based in Memphis, Tennessee representing clients across the region. We fight for the dignity, safety, and inclusion of immigrants in the United States, especially those most marginalized, through legal representation and advocacy. We fight for the rights of immigrants but also for the expansion of those rights to ensure that all people are equally protected by the laws of the United States. AIR seeks to create structural and systemic change by coordinating with other legal service providers and community-based organizations to complement our skills and build our mutual capacity. Our service model inherently provides for relationships that will propel our work and the work of our partners. For more information, please visit airlegal.org

About Children’s Rights

Children’s Rights is a national advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of children living in or impacted by America’s child welfare, immigration, juvenile legal, education, and healthcare systems. We use civil rights impact litigation, advocacy and policy expertise, and public education to hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Our work centers on creating lasting systemic change that will advance the rights of children for generations. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.


Stephanie Schneider, McDermott Will & Emery, sschneider@mwe.com

Camilla Jenkins, Children’s Rights, cjenkins@childrensrights.org