Updated 10:41 PM EST, Wed, Jan 20, 2021

Contrary to Reports, Undocumented Children Can Stay in U.S. Legally Under Law Enacted in 1990

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Thousands of unaccompanied migrant youths have crossed the Mexican border into the United States this year, and the numbers are rising. While the push is for removal from the United States, under a law first enacted by Congress in 1990, these children may actually be able to stay.

The Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJ) allows certain children who are unable to reunite with their parent to attain a green card, which gives them a chance to live and work in the U.S. permanently. Stipulations include never petitioning for a parent's green card, and not doing so for a sibling until becoming a citizen.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the program's purpose is to "help foreign children in the United States who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected."

Laws were expanded in 2008 to provide protection to child victims of human trafficking. Reasons not approved by the DHS include escaping political persecution and gang recruitment efforts.

Youth are handed over to Immigrations and Customs enforcement (ICE) who decided whether the minor qualifies for SIJ. Local family judges then determine whether minimum requirements are met before shifting the case to the federal level to be considered for a visa.

In an interview with CNN, immigration attorney Rebeca Salmon said that a child's journey to the U.S. is only half over once they've arrived.

"Not every kid that applies gets to stay. Not every kid who enters can even apply. You have to be abandoned, abused and neglected," Salmon said. "There are minimum requirements, but then there's also the rigorous process of immigration, so not every kid gets to stay."

Salmon said only 10 percent of about 60,000 who migrated to the U.S. in the last year will be eligible for the benefit.

The Obama administration recently estimated it will catch 90,000 children crossing the border illegally without their parents by September. They returned fewer than 2,000 last year, most from poverty-stricken countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which carries the highest murder rate in the world.

Attributing to the low transfer rate is an immigration court system backlogged with tens of thousands of pending cases. If a child's case makes it this far, judges may still take years to render a final verdict. By then, they have grown accustomed to living in the U.S.

"If that's the only message you get out through this, please make sure that's clear. If you send your kids here or kids come on their own, you're fleeing something in your country, every case is different and every case is difficult," Salmon said.

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