TN Court of Appeals Supports Humanitarian Protection for Immigrant Children

Sept. 1, 2017

On August 30, 2017, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued the state’s first opinion on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. The court’s decision ensures that judges cannot arbitrarily deny vulnerable immigrant children the opportunity to remain in Tennessee after fleeing abuse, abandonment or neglect in their home countries.

Many of MIA’s clients are eligible to apply for legal immigration status and protection from deportation through Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). To apply for this status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a child must prove that he or she has been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents and that it is not in the child’s best interest to be returned to his or her country of birth or nationality. To demonstrate eligibility, federal immigration law requires applicants to demonstrate that a state court has made these factual findings consistent with state child welfare laws.

In October 2016, a Tennessee judge found that he did not have jurisdiction to determine whether it was in our client’s “best interest” to remain under the care of his family members in Tennessee or to be deported to a country where he was forced to drop out of school at age 12 to work in the corn fields after his father abandoned his family. Because the judge refused to make this finding, our client remained vulnerable to deportation, meaning he would have to leave school once again, involuntarily returning to a place where he was barely subsisting.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals found that judges cannot abrogate their responsibility to make this finding; rather, a judge must make this specific “best interest” finding in a manner consistent with Tennessee child welfare law, irrespective of the child’s nationality or immigration status.

This ruling supports Tennessee’s most vulnerable immigrant children, ensuring that many will be able to continue enjoying the benefits of living a life of safety and dignity with their families and legal guardians in Tennessee.