Advocating for Children of Immigrants

Janet Ward, National CASA Regional Program Officer, and Diane Robinson, member of the Curriculum Advisory Committee

Immigrant children in the child welfare system face many challenges, and need trained volunteers to advocate for their best interests. As a CASA/GAL volunteer, there are a number of questions you need to ask when the child you represent or members of his/her family are immigrants to the United States. Make sure you determine the citizenship of both the child and all family members early in your assessment. In cases where either the child or parents are not US citizens, effective permanency planning requires simultaneously negotiating both the immigration system and the child welfare system. 

As with all children, the most important question is: What permanent plan is in this child’s best interest?

If the goal is reunification, you need to ask:

  • Is the child a citizen or does he/she have legal residency?
  • What about the mother? Father? Siblings?
  • If the child or parents are legal residents (but not citizens), have they had this status for at least five years? If they have, then they may be eligible for services from the state. If not, they most likely are not. In this case, the CASA/GAL volunteer will need to advocate for services from non-governmental organizations, such as faith-based communities including Catholic charities.
  • Does the child speak English?
  • Does the mother speak English? What about the father? Siblings?
  • What translation services are available if they are needed?

Sources for this information include the immediate and extended family as well as the caseworker. It is never appropriate to ask the child to interpret for the parent in a child welfare situation.

Living with relatives is often a good option for children whose parents cannot care for them. If this is a possibility for an immigrant child, questions to ask include:

  • Are there any relatives who could provide kinship care?
  • If yes, what is their immigration status?
  • If they are legal residents (but not citizens), have they had this status for at least five years? If not, can they provide care without financial or support services, or are there non-governmental services available?
  • If no relatives are able or willing to provide care, are there any foster parents available who speak the child’s language?

If the goal of the case is adoption or guardianship following termination of parental rights, the CASA/GAL volunteer needs to know about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). This is a unique part of immigration law that allows immigrant juveniles in the child welfare system to become legal residents and to apply for citizenship after five years. This may be the best option for a child who is in the country illegally, whose parents’ rights have been (or are likely to be) terminated, and for whom staying in the United States is in their best interests.

The SIJS process takes some months.  It must be completed before juvenile court jurisdiction ends (age 18 or 21, depending on state law) or it is no longer applicable and the youth loses this vital opportunity. The CASA/GAL volunteer advocate needs to be aware of this very important deadline and advocate for the child to ensure that it is met. Questions to ask include:

  • Who is the appropriate contact at the Department of Homeland Security?
  • Who is completing the immigration forms I-360 (Petition for Special Immigrant) and I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status)? These forms are available at Petition for Special Immigrant and Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Additional forms are also required in support.
  • Has the juvenile or family court made findings “that it is in the juvenile’s best interest not to be returned to his/her country of nationality or last habitual residence (or the juvenile’s parents’ country of nationality or last habitual residence)?”

For more information:
Go to National CASA’s Connection magazine’s summer 2006 edition

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