Facts: Child was born in Guatemala 16 years ago. Child’s father abandoned the family over four years ago. Child’s mother struggled to provide for the family, which forced Child to drop out of school after the sixth grade because his mother was too poor to pay for him to continue. After dropping out of school, Child worked in the cornfields. Child’s family ate once or twice a day and typically ate only the corn they grew.
In 2015, Child left Guatemala and traveled to the United States, where he was apprehended by immigration authorities. He was placed in the temporary custody of his paternal uncle in Tennessee. Child has lived in Tennessee since that time, and has been enrolled in school in Tennessee.
In 2016, Child’s uncle petitioned for the appointment of a guardian for Child requesting, among other things, a specific finding regarding whether it is in Child’s best interest to be returned to Guatemala.
After hearing, the trial court found that both of Child’s parents had willfully abandoned Child. The trial court refused, however, to make a finding as to whether it was in Child’s best interest to be returned to Guatemala because the trial court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to make such a determination.
Child’s uncle appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Some children present in the United States without legal immigration status are in need of humanitarian protection because they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent. Special Immigrant Juvenile (“SIJ”) status is an immigration classification that may allow for these vulnerable children to immediately apply for lawful permanent resident status, i.e., a “green card.”
A child cannot apply for SIJ status without an order from the juvenile court that contains factual findings based on state law about the abuse, neglect, or abandonment, family reunification, and the best interest of the child. It should be noted, however, that the state court order does not grant SIJ status or a “green card”; only federal immigration authorities can grant or deny these benefits.
The state-court proceeding is just the first step of a three-step process to obtain a green card. Once the state court has made the specific findings, the child can apply to federal authorities for SIJ status. If SIJ status is granted, then the third step is applying for a green card.
The Court determined that the Tennessee trial court had jurisdiction to make the finding as to whether it is in Child’s best interest to be returned to Guatemala:
[T]he trial court had jurisdiction to hear the Petition for Appointment of Guardian pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 34-to-101.
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In the case now before us, [federal law] establishes that in order to apply for special immigrant juvenile status, the Minor must have, among other things, an order from a Tennessee court placing him in the custody of an individual appointed by the court, a determination that reunification with his parents is not viable due to abandonment [or other possible grounds] as found under Tennessee law, and a determination that it would not be in the Minor’s best interest to be returned to Guatemala. The trial court’s Order Appointing Guardian appointed the Minor’s uncle [as the] guardian of the Minor, placed the Minor in the custody of the Minor’s uncle, and found that reunification of the Minor with his parents was not viable due to willful abandonment. The trial court, however, failed to make a finding with regard as to whether it is in the best interest of the Minor to be returned to Guatemala. We note . . . that making such finding does not guarantee that the Minor will be granted special immigrant juvenile status. This finding, however, is a required predicate for the Minor to apply for such status.
The Petition for Appointment of Guardian properly contained a request seeking a finding regarding whether it is in the Minor’s best interest to be returned to Guatemala. We find and hold the trial court had jurisdiction to make this requested finding.
Thus, the case was remanded to the trial court to determine whether it is in Child’s best interest to be returned to Guatemala.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.