- Associated Press - Thursday, August 14, 2014

(For use by New York Times News Service Clients)

c.2013 Houston Chronicle< For years, Angie Rodriguez and her brother holed up inside their tiny concrete-brick house in the world's most dangerous city, venturing outside only for school or tortillas and beans. They were terrified of Honduras' murderous gangs, which control swaths of San Pedro Sula.

Their parents had left them years earlier with an uncle to seek work in the U.S. Then, Angie’s friend was killed because he wouldn’t join a gang. The 14-year-old worried her younger brother would be targeted too. “He was nearing the age where it’s dangerous to be a boy in Honduras,” she said.

So the two set out on the perilous trek north in 2009, when U.S. Border Patrol agents caught them as they trudged through the unrelenting South Texas brush. They were released a month later to their grandparents in Houston while they waited to see an immigration judge.

But instead of being deported, Angie and her brother received their green cards two years ago under a relatively little known provision for certain immigrant children who state courts find cannot be returned to their parents because of abuse or neglect. Even as President Barack Obama has pledged to fast-track deportations of thousands of recently arrived migrant children, immigration lawyers and experts say many of them may qualify for this relief, allowing them to stay here legally and ultimately become U.S. citizens.

Known as special immigrant juvenile status, the provision has “consistently been the most common source of relief” for unaccompanied children represented by Kids in Need of Defense, said Wendy Young, executive director of the national pro-bono organization for immigrant kids. She said it’s the easiest and fastest avenue, especially as it mostly evades the severely backlogged immigration courts.

”It could be very important for a lot of the children, especially the Central American unaccompanied minors,” said Geoff Hoffman, director of the University of Houston’s immigration clinic. Roughly 63,000 unaccompanied and mostly Central American children have flooded the southwestern U.S. border in the last year.

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services statistics show the number of children approved for the juvenile status visa skyrocketed from just two in 1992 to more than 1,200 in 2009 after Congress greatly expanded which children qualified. In 2013, more than 3,430 children were granted this relief, and through June this fiscal year, USCIS said more than 3,900 petitions have been filed.

Advocates say many of the recently arrived children - who are mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and, like Angie, say they’re fleeing violence and poverty - could qualify for special immigrant juvenile status. To do so, the child must either be in state custody or an attorney must ask a state judge to make a custody determination. The judge must agree the child cannot be reunified with one or both parents due to “abuse, neglect, abandonment.” Finally, the judge must determine it’s not in the best interest of the child to return to his or her home country. USCIS makes the ultimate decision, but petitions are typically approved if the state court has made those findings.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement has estimated that about 42 percent of all unaccompanied children who arrived in the U.S. in fiscal year 2011 could be eligible to remain legally and more than half of those could qualify for special immigrant juvenile visas. It’s by far their most popular form of relief, much more so than asylum, which is very difficult for Mexicans and Central Americans to obtain. Most are fleeing gang and drug cartel violence, which doesn’t typically fit into the narrow definitions of persecution necessary to qualify. Last year, immigration courts approved less than 5 percent of asylum applications from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

”(Special immigrant juvenile status) is popular because when we work with children in any other situation in this country we generally talk about what’s in the best interest of the kids, that’s what we use as our yard stick,” said David Thronson, a law professor at Michigan State University who specializes in the issue. “But this is the only place in immigration law where the best interest of the child is mentioned.”

Congress created the provision in 1990, after lobbying by child advocates and social workers mainly from Los Angeles County who were concerned about all the immigrant children aging out of their care without any legal status.

”These were kids who had been completely Americanized, who were raised literally by the state,” Thronson said. “And we were turning around and throwing them out with no prospects.”

For more than 15 years, the provision was little known and little used. Over the years, courts have clarified which children qualify under what circumstances. In 2008, legislators widened the requirement from children who cannot be reunified with both parents to also allow those who can return to one but not the other in certain situations.

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