N.J. Supreme Court Rules for Immigrant Children

     TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that lower courts overreached in two cases of children seeking special immigration status, who should have been granted it as they sought asylum.
     The ruling, which deals with two cases of immigrant children seeking asylum in the United States, reverses lower court decisions denying them special immigrant juvenile status. In both cases, the children had been denied the special status because abuse had not been evident, and in one of the cases was legal under the origin country’s laws.
     Special immigrant juvenile status is granted to immigrant children who cannot be reunified with their parents in home countries because of abuse or neglect. It allows those children to obtain lawful permanent residency and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
     One case involves a 21-year-old Indian man known in court documents as M.S., who was abandoned when he was four years old. M.S. worked as a construction worker at 15 years old when his mother became sick, clocking more than 74 hours a week. However, after he developed a skin condition and back problems he traveled to the United States to live with his brother.
     While in the United States, M.S.’ older brother filed a petition in the state family court to gain custody of M.S. as a special immigrant juvenile, arguing that if M.S. returned to India he would again suffer abuse or neglect.
     The family court determined that M.S.’ father may have abandoned him, but that his mother neither abandoned nor abused the boy by allowing him to work in construction, even if he was a minor and work conditions were harsh.
     The case was appealed and the New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division determined that while M.S.’ employment was dangerous and could be considered child abuse under state law, it was not under Indian law. M.S.’ brother appealed the case, which found its way to the state supreme court.
     In the other case, an El Salvadoran woman sought custody of her two daughters, who had remained in El Salvador with their father. In 2013, the girls’ father was murdered by a local gang and one of the girls was allegedly raped by a gang member. Their grandmother, who had been caring for the two girls but had also allegedly been abusing them, received a death threat from the gang.
     The two daughters fled to United States. The two children were apprehended by immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexican border, but were ultimately reunited with their mother in Elizabeth, N.J.
     Special immigrant juvenile status was denied to the two girls because they ended up living with their mother, who was already in the United States. The court ruled that such status is reserved only for juveniles who cannot stay with either parent.
     The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings in both cases that had rejected special immigrant juvenile status. The state’s high court ruled that family courts should merely review the facts at hand, not try to ascertain the intentions of the children or adjudicate their status applications.
     In the case of M.S., the state supreme court ruled that it did not matter whether Indian law permitted the harsh work conditions that he worked in because it would have constituted abuse under New Jersey law.
     Regarding the girls from El Salvador, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that, since their father was dead and they could not reasonably return safely to their home country, special status should be granted.
     Judge Mary Cuff, who wrote the unanimous opinion, added that New Jersey courts should not try to discern whether an immigrant is seeking special immigrant juvenile status as a way to game the immigration system or merely evade abuse.
     “That determination is properly left to the federal government,” Cuff wrote.
     Both immigration petitions now return to the family court for new hearings. New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner did not participate in the ruling.

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