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Appellate Court considered a guardianship case related to seeking a special immigrant juvenile status. Juan R.E.M. v. Juan R.E. 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 6977 (N.Y. App. Div. 2017)


Juan R.E.M. v. Juan R.E. 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 6977 (N.Y. App. Div. 2017) revolves around the efforts of a child to obtain special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) in the United States. SIJS was designed to provide protection to immigrant children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents. Established under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), SIJS aims to safeguard vulnerable minors who have faced hardships in their home countries and are unable to reunify with their parents due to these circumstances. This status offers a pathway for these children to obtain lawful permanent residency in the U.S., ensuring their safety and well-being.

The eligibility criteria for SIJS are specific and stringent, requiring applicants to meet both immigration and state court dependency standards. To qualify, the applicant must be under 21 years old and unmarried, and they must have been declared dependent on a juvenile court due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect by one or both parents. Additionally, the court must determine that it is not in the child’s best interest to be returned to their home country and that they would benefit from remaining in the United States. This dual requirement, involving both immigration and state court proceedings, underscores the complexity of the SIJS process.

One of the key features of SIJS is that it provides a pathway for undocumented immigrant children to obtain legal status in the U.S., even if they entered the country unlawfully or overstayed their visas. This is crucial as it prevents these vulnerable minors from falling through the cracks of the immigration system and facing potential deportation to unsafe environments. By granting them lawful permanent residency, SIJS allows these children to access essential rights and protections, including the ability to work legally, pursue education, and access healthcare services.

The significance of SIJS cannot be overstated, particularly in light of the challenges faced by immigrant children who have experienced trauma and adversity. For many of these minors, obtaining SIJS represents a lifeline, offering them stability, protection, and the opportunity to build a brighter future. Without this legal safeguard, they could be left vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, or other forms of harm.

Background Facts
In April 2016, a petition was filed under the Family Court Act by Juan R. E. M., referred to as “the child,” seeking to appoint his father as his guardian. The purpose was to obtain an order declaring him dependent on the Family Court, confirming he is unmarried and under 21 years old, establishing that reuniting with his mother isn’t feasible due to parental issues, and asserting that returning to El Salvador, his previous country of nationality and residence, wouldn’t be in his best interest. This was to facilitate his application for SIJS with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), as per 8 USC § 1101(a)(27)(J).

In November 2016, the father requested the court to issue an order to fulfill the necessary declaration and findings for the child’s SIJS petition. The Family Court granted the guardianship petition on December 7, 2016, and simultaneously issued a separate order (referred to as the special findings order) to meet the requirements for SIJS.

Subsequently, the child submitted an I-360 petition for SIJS to USCIS. However, USCIS responded with a “Request for Evidence,” indicating deficiencies in the special findings order and requesting further information to process the SIJS petition. In response, the father sought to amend the special findings order to address the deficiencies highlighted by USCIS.

However, in an order dated August 23, 2017, the Family Court denied the father’s motion to amend the special findings order. The reason cited was the court’s lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to the child having turned 21 years old in May 1996. Consequently, the father has filed an appeal against this order.

The court had to determine whether it had jurisdiction to entertain the father’s motion to amend the special findings order despite the child turning 21 years old.

The appellate court reversed the Family Court’s decision, emphasizing that the grant of the guardianship petition before the child’s 21st birthday eliminated any jurisdictional impediment. Additionally, the court granted the father’s motion to amend the special findings order to rectify deficiencies and clarify the basis for the child’s dependency declaration.

The Appellate Court reversed the Family Court’s decision because it determined that the Family Court had improperly concluded it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the father’s motion to amend the special findings order. This conclusion was based on the fact that the guardianship petition had been granted prior to the child’s 21st birthday, removing any jurisdictional impediment to issuing an order enabling the child to petition for SIJS.

The appellate court’s decision reversed the Family Court’s denial of the father’s motion to amend the special findings order. By clarifying jurisdictional matters and addressing deficiencies identified by USCIS, the court ensured the child’s pursuit of SIJS was not impeded. This case underscores the importance of timely legal actions and the meticulous crafting of court orders to safeguard the rights and interests of vulnerable individuals, such as immigrant children seeking protection in the United States.

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