NEW YORK (Reuters) - Young migrants in New Jersey who are seeking legal status in the United States after allegedly suffering abuse or neglect in their home countries sued the Trump administration on Monday, saying it is unfairly denying their claims.
It is the fourth such lawsuit of its kind around the country filed since last year over rejections of so-called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status petitions, which have increasingly been denied to migrants as President Donald Trump’s administration tightens immigration policy.
Monday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of four anonymous people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who say they were victims of family abuse and gang violence in their home countries but that their applications for immigration status were unfairly denied because they are between the ages of 18 to 21.
A state court judge has to rule on whether young migrants are eligible to apply for the special immigration status, which can lead to a green card, but the government has argued that some state courts do not have jurisdiction over that age group.
Pro-bono attorneys in New Jersey who filed the suit said more than 100 other migrants in the state are facing denials and should be covered by the class action.
“The government has imposed a new requirement for eligibility, resulting in the delay and denial of scores of meritorious petitions and placing young people in jeopardy of deportation,” Monday’s lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey said.
The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) declined to comment on the new suit. But in past court filings, the government has said there is no official change in policy and that USCIS is correctly applying the law in each case on an ad hoc basis.
Two federal judges have rejected those arguments.
Approvals of special immigrant juvenile status petitions dropped by nearly 60 percent in the 2018 fiscal year compared to a year earlier - to 4,712 - while denials increased more than 88 percent to around 1,600, according to government data. During that time, the overall number of applications only rose around 4 percent.
Reuters reported in March that immigration authorities have ramped up demands for additional documents that are tying up applications for the status.
Last month, a judge in New York ruled against the Trump administration saying there is a new policy of denials that was not implemented through the proper channels and ordered the government to process the applications. A judge in California also ruled against the administration, granting a preliminary injunction last October to migrant plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs in the New Jersey case migrated to the United States in 2014 and 2015 during a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Like asylum, the special protection program has been used by immigration advocates and attorneys as a path to legal residency in the United States.
The government received 1,646 applications for the status in fiscal year 2010. By 2018, the number of applications had jumped more than thirteenfold to over 21,000.
Critics of the special status, including some officials in the Trump administration, have seen the ballooning number of petitions as a “loophole” that is being exploited.
Trump, recently frustrated by the highest numbers of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border in more than a decade - including many families with young children - has railed against asylum protections and other U.S. laws that he says are too permissive and are encouraging more immigration and illegal border crossings.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Julia Marquis and Alistair Bell