MD Expands Opportunities for Abused, Undocumented Children

Every year thousands of unaccompanied and undocumented children come to the United States from across the globe. Often, they are fleeing life-threatening violence or escaping child abuse and neglect. In the U.S. they hope to reunite with parents or other relatives, and they dream of attending school and earning a living. The overwhelming majority, an estimated 60,000 for FY 2014, are apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and placed into deportation proceedings before the overwhelmed and backlogged Immigration Courts. During the pendency of proceedings, they are frequently sent to live with relatives while their cases work their way through the system. Last week, in a move that went largely unnoticed, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed a new bill into law that will allow many more of these young people to obtain lawful status in the U.S. and provide them with a path towards citizenship.

The new law, HB 315, which will take effect on October 1, 2014, effectively and finally closes a harmful age gap between federal immigration law and Maryland state law, which until now caused undue hardship on the most vulnerable immigrant children. Under the federal immigration laws, children who may not be reunified with one or both parents because of abuse, neglect or abandonment and who are unmarried and under the age of 21, may obtain Special Juvenile Immigrant Status or SIJS, which leads to a green card, following background and other checks, and later citizenship. Nevertheless, the factual determinations regarding abuse, abandonment and neglect, the likelihood of a child's reunification with his parent(s), and his best interests must be made by a state juvenile court judge in the context of a custody, guardianship or foster care case. Under previous Maryland state law, however, juvenile courts could only exercise jurisdiction over such cases for children up to the age of 18. The three-year gap significantly abrogated the federal law that was meant to help so many more children.

To understand the full effect of the law, consider the real-life case of "Marek," (18) and his sister, "Krystyn" (16), both undocumented immigrants from Eastern Europe. The children and their mother had fled an abusive and violent domestic relationship and moved in with their U.S. citizen grandfather in the U.S. Their grandfather filed a petition to obtain lawful status for their mother, which included them as derivative beneficiaries, and soon all three of them would receive their green cards. Days before Christmas, however, Marek returned home to find that his mother, who bore the brunt of their father's abuse, had taken her own life. They were now no longer eligible to receive status through their grandfather.

Krystyn, however, qualified for SIJS. A state court judge first granted her grandfather sole custody and then found, amongst other things, that Krystyn's mother had "abandoned" her and her father abused and neglected her. Krystyn's future was bright: She filed for and received her green card and thus qualified for in-state tuition and financial aid for college. In Marek's case, due to his age, the judge's hands were tied. For Marek, college was out of the question, and his dreams remained indefinitely on hold. While this is the unfortunate state of affairs in nearly all U.S. states, it is no longer true in Maryland.

Given the unique vulnerabilities of young people, such as Marek and Krystyn, in order for them to succeed in a new environment, it is critically important that they have an adult role model as their custodian or guardian beyond the tender age of 18. In fact, studies show that the involvement of parents (or surrogate parents) is a key factor in educational achievement, as well as a major factor in helping teens avoid risks such as drinking, drug use, teenage pregnancy, violence and suicide attempts. Maryland courts will now be authorized to help children lawfully obtain and keep their custodians and guardians up to the age of 21.

This additional support will help ensure long-term positive outcomes for these children, which is good for Maryland. With lawful immigration status, these children will be more likely to learn English, graduate from high school and even pursue post-secondary education and job training. As they obtain positions where they can maximize their skill sets, they will earn an average of 25 percent more than their undocumented counterparts, and in so doing, help Maryland's economy not only through increased tax revenue, but also through increased consumption. They will spend more on food, clothing, housing, cars, computers, etc., which will contribute to economic growth. As Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake has recognized, immigrants are key to revitalizing communities.

The new bill recognizes that if these children succeed, Maryland succeeds. Hopefully more states will follow the lead of Maryland and a handful of other jurisdictions and close this harmful gap between federal and state laws.