As part of our efforts to amplify the AILA Law Journal, Madelyn Cox-Guerra shared some insights from her recent article published in the Spring 2023 edition of the AILA Law Journal, “Split Up: Is the Reasoning Behind the State Court Divide on One-Parent Interpretations of SIJ Status Correlated with Statutory Biases Against Single Parents, Immigrants, or Neither?” in which she looked into how state courts’ differences affect SIJS applicants. AILA members, access your free digital copy of the Law Journal to read more!

I am a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, where I concentrated in immigration, criminal, and family law. I am hoping to work in “crimmigration” law, which is what led me to research the impact state courts have on noncitizen youths’ applications for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

My article, titled “Split Up: Is the Reasoning Behind the State Court Divide on One-Parent Interpretations of SIJ Status Correlated with Statutory Biases Against Single Parents, Immigrants, or Neither?” analyzes how state courts treat federal immigration statutes when they are tasked with making findings relevant to Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).

Despite immigration law falling under the federal government’s responsibility, state legislatures and courts have a significant impact on noncitizens, and analyzing those systems is important for doing state-level immigration justice work. For example, state prosecutors have a major role in determining whether noncitizens (undocumented or with legal status) are charged with removability in federal immigration court. Prosecutors can decide whether to charge and prosecute minor offenses that could result in disproportionate collateral consequences under immigration statues, such as deportation.

Likewise, state and local police can decide whether to report undocumented immigrants to the Department of Homeland Security.

State legislatures can take action to expand benefits or documentation to undocumented immigrants. An excellent example of this is the Driver’s License for All Bill that was recently signed into law in Minnesota; prior to the passage of this law, undocumented immigrants were unable to obtain drivers licenses and not able to legally drive; this increased the likelihood of criminalization by undocumented immigrants for simply driving, and prevented them from accessing insurance.

Similarly, state courts have the authority to make factual findings for use in Special Immigrant Juvenile Status applications.

Additionally, family and juvenile courts are state courts that determine child custody issues. Historically, the common law was biased against single parents in preference of two-parent households. The statute and regulations on SIJ status contemplates that youth who were abandoned, neglected, or abused by one parent, might still have a non-offending parent and still need legal status.

Thus, the goal of this article was to examine whether state courts that express a bias against immigrants or single parents, reflect that bias within state courts in regards to SIJ status. There are multiple state court divisions regarding the finding requirements for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. These include: whether state juvenile courts have jurisdiction to make findings for SIJ status applicants 18 and older, whether criminal history is a basis to deny SIJ status findings, and whether having one remaining non-offending parent allows the youth to meet the regulatory requirements (a one-parent interpretation, as opposed to a two-parent interpretation).

Some of these splits are genuine concerns regarding gaps in jurisdiction between juvenile courts and the federal regulations, and some of these splits illustrate wrongful expansion in the state court’s role in SIJ status applications. This article focuses on the two-parent v. one-parent interpretation split.

First, the article examines all the documented decisions of state courts’ and typifies them into categories based on whether the courts have specifically adopted the one-parent interpretation or two-parent interpretation, use a one-parent interpretation or two-parent interpretation, or are consistent with a one-parent or two-parent interpretation. This analysis revealed that, though only one state (Nebraska) has specifically adopted a two-parent interpretation, several other states that adopted one-parent interpretations overturned lower courts which had applied a two-parent interpretation. The federal statute, regulations, plain language, and statutory history all seem to indicate that the one-parent interpretation is the correct interpretation, and yet it has persisted as an option.

Second, the article uses statistical analysis to compare metrics measuring state statutes for anti-immigrant bias and friendliness towards single parents, to state courts’ precedent of a one-parent or two-parent interpretation. The results indicate a moderately positive and statistically significant correlation between states with low metrics for anti-immigrant statutes and state courts that have adopted a one-parent interpretation.

I hope this article highlights the impact states have on the lives of noncitizens and spurs further study and advocacy for noncitizens at the state level.