November 3, 2011
By Shadi Houshyar
It seems new and ever more frightening immigration-related news is surfacing daily. From calls to end birthright citizenship, to the recent crisis following passage of an immigration law in Alabama, to the release of a groundbreaking report earlier this week revealing that thousands of children are entering the foster care system as a result of irresponsible immigration enforcement measures – it seems that our policies and practices toward immigrant children and families have taken several significant steps backward. As disturbing as these recent stories have been, there are opportunities for Americans to move forward and reclaim our reputation as a tolerant, just and welcoming society that makes the well-being of all our children a national priority.
Thus, we are encouraged by the efforts of Congressman Pete Stark, who today introduced the Foster Children Opportunity Act. The bill increases the likelihood that immigrant children removed from their parents’ custody because of concerns about abuse or neglect will have an opportunity to obtain the legal immigrant status to which they are legally entitled, prior to aging out of the foster care system.
Although not a widely known fact, many Immigrant children involved in the child welfare system are eligible for special forms of immigration relief, including Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). But early identification is critical given that a child can lose SIJS eligibility once the court terminates jurisdiction over the youth. All too often, court officials and child welfare workers are unaware of the immigration relief options available, leaving these children at risk of being deported at any time, while drastically limiting their educational and work opportunities when they “age out” of the system.
Sadly, many undocumented children age out of the child welfare system each year without the opportunity to obtain legal immigrant status. Once they exit the foster care system, these youth often lose their only chance to gain legal status and leave the system lacking the lawful status necessary to succeed in the U.S. They face a daily risk of deportation, are unable to obtain employment authorization, apply for a driver’s license, access benefits, and in most states are not eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
The Foster Children Opportunity Act aims to ensure that all children in the foster care system are screened for SIJS and other immigration relief options before they exit care. The bill provides needed technical assistance to child welfare agencies and resources to train judges, attorneys and other legal workers to ensure they are aware of these options and of how to take advantage of appropriate relief . The legislation also clarifies that a state can obtain reimbursement for the foster care costs of a child once the child obtains SIJS status and ensures that children who receive SIJS are exempted from the 5 year ban placed on receiving Federal means-tested public benefits.
We applaud Congressman Stark and his colleagues for working to give immigrant kids living in foster care a fighting chance to lead healthy and productive adult lives. His leadership and passion are a reminder to us all that we must continue to value the well-being of all children and families in this country.
The First Focus Campaign for Children worked together with over 80 state and national organizations in commending Congressman Stark and the bill’s co-sponsors for introducing this important legislation.