When children are in need, we can empathize that we all were once children, some of us with parents to navigate through the obstacles of life. When foster children are added to the category of children, most of us can feel sympathetic towards those children since the majority of us did not come from foster care. We want foster children to have the same opportunities as we had growing up, and ideally we would like those children to be reunited with their parents or adoption into a nurturing environment. Now add “undocumented immigrant” before foster children, and feelings then split towards the contentious issue of immigration.
When immigration reform is mentioned, conflict arises when the current status in legislation is at a standstill. Even Congressional leaders from different political parties have stated a need for children towards a path of citizenship who were brought into the United States illegally by their parents. However, the House Speaker announced a halt on immigration reform before the November 2014 elections.
Here in Downey, we are located in the 40th Congressional district represented by Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard. She has a pro-immigration reform agenda, advocating for immigration rights to empower these undocumented persons to become contributors back to the community. The Congresswoman was also one of the first co-authors of the Dream Act, a bill that assists undocumented immigrant students with state financial assistance to attend postsecondary schools. A study of the bill concluded that it would contribute $329 billion into the United States economy and provide one million jobs by 2030.
Vulnerable undocumented immigrant children were brought into the United States unlawfully by their parents from circumstances resulting in the loss of parental rights. The court system also determined it was in the best interest of the child not to deport in fear of retribution from their abuser in their country of origin. These children then become dependents of the state in the foster care system.
According to a fiscal year report by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, more than 13,000 unaccompanied alien youths were under federal custody and foster care – a small national population of undocumented immigrants, a model group that could be the grassroots displaying a successful immigration reform program.
It would cost taxpayers more money to deport or pay for social services and incarceration for children who age out of the foster care system without a lawful immigration status. A lawful status could enable federal secondary educational financial resources, legal employment and, in the long-term, contributors to society where the baby boomer generation are retiring and the future of the workplace depend on the children. A pair of Princeton University scholars have conducted a study of the increasing immigrant population, predicting that immigrant youth are the fastest growing population and will account for one-third of the child population across the nation by 2025.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a law passed during the 1990s, is a voluntary application process for undocumented immigrant children in the care of the state to achieve a lawful residency status before they age out of the foster care system. According to the provisions of SIJS, the abuse, neglect, abandonment and the best interests of the child to remain in the United States in fear of retribution from the abuser, must be proven in a court of law. If the children become United States citizens they cannot bring relatives to the United States so it is not a law to enable more immigrants to the United States. There is a lack of awareness of SIJS across the nation and is not required by law to process the application.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services has their own department for SIJS from having the most cases nationally, assisting undocumented immigrant children towards a lawful residency status. The progression of the procedures in LA County is a milestone to assist a vulnerable population from a federal standstill in immigration reform. Southern California is taking smaller steps locally to deal with a larger federal immigration reform.
The proposal of a federal bill Foster Children Opportunity Act or H. R. 2036, co-sponsored by Roybal-Allard, would mandate administrative documentation, staff training and advocates for the foster children to assist in immigrant relief programs towards a lawful immigrant status across the nation. The Foster Children Opportunity Act basically directs agencies to provide assistance for immigration relief laws already passed such as SIJS. Unfortunately three previous federal bills identical to H. R. 2036 sponsored by California senators have been proposed and died before reaching the Congressional floor for a vote.
The demographics of the nation are changing, and as a community we must be flexible in order to progress into the future. Adaptation to the environmental changes in the community will develop a reciprocal relationship where the population will then give back to the community. A lack of action and information will keep the community stagnant, no change using up the surplus of resources in the community. Laws such as SIJS are available but not required to assist a vulnerable population of children has taken shape in the LA County community where it has shown the process works assisting children towards attainment to a better future.
We can unite in our communities by our selection of local leaders and national leaders representing our community to persuade the nation from the example of success in Southern California.
Jesse Tran is a student at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work. He wrote this op-ed as part of an assignment at USC.
Published: May 15, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 05