Cross-Systems Advocacy for Children Who Lack Legal Immigration Status in Southeastern Pennsylvania

Emerging Leader Fellow: Catherine Feeley, 2015-2016

The Problem:

Hundreds, or possibly thousands, of children throughout Pennsylvania lack legal immigration status.  Without legal status, these children are at risk of being separated from their caretakers in the US, denied basic education, and forcibly returned to living situations in which they are likely to be physically and emotionally harmed and exploited.  Fortunately, some of these immigrant children may qualify for legal immigration status through a federal protection called Special Immigrant Juvenile status (“SIJS”).  SIJS provides a lawful way for immigrant children to stay in the US when they have been separated from a parent due to abuse, abandonment or neglect, and will continue to suffer the consequences of that loss if returned to their country of birth.

Courts in Pennsylvania that make decisions about the care and custody of children play a vital role in determining the futures of these immigrant children living in our state.  Federal law relies on these courts to use state law to identify abused, neglected, or abandoned immigrant children under their jurisdiction who cannot reunify with a parent based on the maltreatment they have suffered.  Federal law also asks state courts to place these children in the custody of a safe caregiver/institution and to make sure their best interests are being served through that placement.  Without the cooperation of the state bar and courts, the federal government cannot uphold immigration law, which protects these children only when they have obtained proof from the state courts that it is in their best interests to stay in the US with a particular caregiver.  As a result, a misunderstanding at the state level can prevent a child from applying for legal immigration status and ultimately cause them to return to a dangerous place where they have no caretaker to ensure their best interests.

The Approach:

Katie and HIAS Pennsylvania worked to help immigrant children overcome the barriers they face in gaining access to SIJS.  Katie led this effort by collaborating with experts in the field to develop and share tools and recommendations designed to help Pennsylvania's bench and bar to better serve this population.  To inform this work, she conducted research on best practices; represented children in state court; and interviewed attorneys, judges, and child welfare staff.  


Katie found that a variety of strategies are necessary to ensure Pennsylvania’s eligible children gain access to SIJS:

  • Like Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, other county child welfare agencies should identify and refer noncitizens in their care to legal service providers who can address their immigration needs.
  • Federal authorities should adequately fund legal aid to ensure that all children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected have access to low cost or free legal services that can help protect them.
  • Each county court should create clear policies to ensure that these children and their caregivers have access to state court proceedings necessary before applying for SIJS. 


Updated August 2016