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At the young age of 11, Cesar realized that a life in Honduras wasn’t going to be sustainable for him. He was living with his aunts after being abandoned by his biological father. Cesar’s only option at a better life was to make the journey to the United States to reunite with his mom after being separated from her for years.

“It was a big decision for me because I was 11 years old,” Cesar said. “But I also missed [my mom] and not being able to see her for a long time influenced my decision.”

Because Cesar entered the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian with him, he was considered unaccompanied and therefore immediately placed in removal proceedings. His only pathway to citizenship would be Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) is a legal protection created by Congress for immigrant youth under the age of 21 who are unable to reunite with one or both of their parents due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. It was created to allow children who experienced this kind of parental harm to directly apply for lawful permanent residence (a green card) and find stability, protection from deportation, work authorization, and eligibility for financial aid. 

Due to numerical caps placed on visas–which SIJS is categorized as–there is an ever growing backlog of kids who have to wait years until their application is reviewed and, if accepted, they can apply for a green card and only then receive the benefits and protection mentioned above.

According to the End SIJS Backlog Coalition, over 100,000 immigrant youth are stuck in this backlog, waiting to be granted protection and in jeopardy of being exploited and deported. 

The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is a member of the End SIJS Backlog Coalition–a coalition dedicated to educating Congress, administrative agencies and the public about the harmful impacts of visa caps on vulnerable immigrant children, and to advocating for an end to the SIJS backlog.

Image of attorneys preparing for the SIJS clinic
This month, NIJC partnered with Ropes & Gray LLP to hold a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status Pro Bono Clinic. Photo by NIJC.

Shortly after Cesar reunited with his mom, a friend referred them to NIJC for help with his case. NIJC filed an application for Cesar to be granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

While Cesar’s SIJS application was approved in the fall of 2019, he wouldn’t be able to apply for a green card until this spring, resulting in a four-year wait that created financial struggles for him.

For immigrant children like Cesar who aspire to go to college or need financial assistance, not being able to apply for permanent residence excludes them from federal financial assistance like FAFSA. For Cesar, this was devastating. 

“It was a mental blow because I knew that I had the grades, the academics, but the simple fact that I wasn’t a U.S. citizen closed a lot of scholarship doors for me.”

Cesar worked hard to obtain scholarships and grants designated for immigrant students. Through those, and his part-time job at McDonald’s, he is able to study something he is passionate about: software engineering.

In 2022, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made temporary protection known as deferred action available for youth granted SIJS. Now, children who receive SIJS can be protected from deportation for four years and can apply for a work permit. The same year that the protection was introduced, Cesar was granted SIJS Deferred Action. While deferred action does not provide the same stability and pathway to citizenship as lawful permanent residence, it has become a source of temporary relief for many young people stuck in the SIJS backlog, as they wait their turn to apply for a green card.

“I’m currently studying so I'm always having this worry about not having a status or knowing what’s going to happen... [Being granted SIJS Deferred Action] felt like less weight on me and the worries I had started to leave,” Cesar said.

Image of attorneys conducting an intake with youth at the SIJS clinic
Attorneys help youth apply for SIJS at the SIJS Pro Bono Clinic. Photo by NIJC.

The ever-growing SIJS backlog creates barriers for immigrant children who are already vulnerable and are trying to create a better future for themselves in the United States. Cesar remembers the feeling of discouragement from not knowing how to finance his education just because of his legal status.

“For an immigrant, going to college is a really tough battle economically because they can’t pay for school. So, a lot of immigrants who are studying get discouraged and stop trying. My advice is to not get discouraged and continue forward no matter how difficult your goal is,” Cesar said. 

Learn more about the coalition’s work and join here: