By Nancy Kelly
In a recent decision, Recinos v. Escobar, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) addressed and resolved a discrepancy between state and federal law as to whether individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 fall within the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts courts. 473 Mass. 734 (2016). The federal immigration statute considers individuals under the age of 21 children, but Massachusetts ordinarily considers individuals over the age of 18 adults. The discrepancy is important in immigration cases when individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile (“SIJ”) status before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security (“USCIS”).
The plaintiff Recinos, Liliana Recinos, is a 20-year-old unmarried Salvadoran who attempted to apply to USCIS for SIJ status. SIJ status is available as an avenue for juveniles who have suffered abuse, neglect or abandonment to apply for permanent resident status before USCIS or the Immigration Court. As a prerequisite to applying for SIJ status, an applicant must obtain findings from a state court with jurisdiction to make determinations about the custody and care of juveniles that: 1) the applicant is dependent on the juvenile court; 2) reunification with one or both parents is not viable due to abuse, neglect or abandonment; and 3) it is not in the applicant’s best interests to return to her country of origin. Armed with those findings, a juvenile, up to age 21, can file a petition with USCIS for classification as a SIJ. If that classification is granted, the applicant can apply for lawful permanent resident status in the United States.
Recinos sought equitable and declaratory relief from the Middlesex County Probate and Family Court, specifically requesting the findings that would allow her to apply to USCIS for SIJ status. Twenty years old at the time of filing, Recinos “chronicled a childhood riddled with instances of physical and emotional abuse by her father,” “her mother’s failure to protect her,” and “chronic gang violence in her neighborhood.” Recinos at 736. The judge dismissed her complaint for lack of jurisdiction because she was over 18 years of age. Recinos filed an appeal with the Appeals Court, seeking expedited processing. The SJC took the appeal on its own motion and expedited the case to preserve Recinos’ opportunity to apply for SIJ status before her 21st birthday.