by Daphne Muñoz and Maria Elias
With the 2014 primary elections nearby, immigration reform is an issue that has been heavily discussed amongst voters. Immigration reform aims to address the various issues that impact our society, including but not limited to poverty, homelessness, and access to education. These are issues that affect our entire immigrant population, including our youth.
However, there is an entire population that is overlooked. They are the thousands of undocumented youth that are currently in the foster care system. These children are not only faced with the challenges of being a dependent of the court due to abuse or neglect, but many are faced with an even greater challenge when confronted with the reality of exiting the system as an undocumented youth. For many of these youth, exiting the system with no legal documentation means possible deportation to a country that may be unfamiliar to them and where they cannot speak the language. For those that remain in the United States unlawfully, the chances of securing a stable job or pursing a higher education are extremely low.
In 2013, the Foster Children Opportunity Act, also known as H.R. 2036 was introduced to alleviate some of these problems. H.R. 2036 provides foster agency staff with specific guidelines that they must follow to ensure that undocumented youth receive adequate support in obtaining legal status through the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) as well as other forms of relief. SIJS offers undocumented youth under the age of 21, who are eligible, to apply for legal immigrant status.
With the passage of H.R. 2036, staff will be required to review the youth’s eligibility for legal status and fill the appropriate forms to document their efforts taken in assisting undocumented youth. Additionally, this legislation would also authorize the court to grant funds to educate and train child welfare workers on the options available to these children and how to best take advantage of them. This training could be extremely beneficial to all child welfare workers since it provides them with the tools necessary to be as effective as possible when working with undocumented youth in foster care.
Whereas H.R. 2036 has come to a halt, it was referred to a committee in May 2013, the same committee that rejected a similar Act back in 2011. These committees are led by a majority that is predominantly Republican. Although many would believe that Republicans are likely to oppose immigration reform, in a recent Gallup poll, self-identified Republicans accounted for a 50% vote for the U.S. to deal with undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. This push for immigration reform comes from the various benefits that legal status can provide to our country.
According to the non-bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, repairing our immigration system will reduce the federal deficit budget by $200 billion over the next 10 years and it will increase the GDP by 3.3% in 2023. Additionally, by providing legal immigration status to undocumented foster youth, the country can expect an increase in the number of youth available to work once the Baby Boom generation retires.
Despite H.R. 2036 having a 0 % chance of being enacted, it is imperative that we advocate for these undocumented foster youth. Legal aid is a crucial process in this fight for social justice. The passage of H.R. 2036 will enable and facilitate a much needed practice for foster care agencies and staff to assist youth in acquiring legal status. Early identification of SIJS is crucial in order to ensure that these children are able to have access to resources. A child may lose SIJS protections once the court terminates their jurisdiction and as a result, lose any chance of obtaining a legal status.
Foster children, undocumented or not, are part of a population that is extremely vulnerable and constantly overlooked. It is the responsibility of the country as a whole to look out for these children and to make sure that they have equal access to opportunities. After all, the community can only benefit from allowing these children the opportunity to seek a bright future and reach their full potential.
Daphne Muñoz and Maria Elias are students at the University of Southern California in the Master of Social Work program.