NEW YORK (Reuters) - Growing up in eastern Honduras, Jose said his father would get drunk and beat him with a horse whip and the flat side of a machete. He said he watched his father, a coffee farmer whose crops succumbed to plague, hit his mother on the head with a pistol, sending her to the hospital for three days.
At 17, Jose said, he hired a coyote to ferry him to the United States, seeking to escape his home life and violent feuding among his relatives, as well as seek better opportunities for himself and his siblings. He was picked up by border agents, then released pending deportation proceedings.
After struggling to get a good lawyer, Jose applied at 19 for special protection under a program for young immigrants subjected to childhood mistreatment including abuse, neglect or abandonment.
But like a growing number of applicants, his petition hit a series of hurdles, then was denied. Now he is appealing.
“It’s like being stuck not going forward or backwards,” said Jose, now 22 and living in New York. He spoke on condition his last name not be used because he is working without a permit and does not want to jeopardize his appeal. “You can’t advance in life,” he said.
As President Donald Trump vociferously pushes for a physical barrier across the country’s southern border, young people claiming to be eligible for protection under the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) program increasingly face a less publicized barrier: heightened demands for paperwork.
Data obtained by Reuters under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has recently ramped up demands for additional documents through “Requests for Evidence” and “Notices of Intent to Deny,” which can tie up cases for months.
The program allows immigrants under 21 to apply for permanent residency in the United States if a state court determines that they need protection and that returning to their home countries would be unsafe. Since 2010, about 54,000 applications have been approved.
In fiscal year 2016, before Trump took office, USCIS issued 347 “Requests for Evidence,” the data show. A year later, the agency issued 4,153, while the overall number of new applications rose only slightly.
“Notices of Intent to Deny,” one of the last opportunities to submit additional information before a petition is rejected, doubled in fiscal year to 767 in 2017 compared to fiscal 2016.
Meanwhile, 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, according to federal data.
USCIS Spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement that the agency evaluates every petition case by case and that requesting additional evidence “cut down on frivolous petitions and applications, reduce waste, and help to improve the integrity and efficiency of the immigration petition process.”
Immigrant advocates and attorneys have turned to the special protection program as one avenue to offer young migrants who had come from violent pasts a path to legal residency in the United States. Some apply for asylum at the same time.
But for years critics have seen the youth program and other forms of legal relief for Central Americans, including some asylum protections, as “loopholes” that are too permissive and end up encouraging more migration.
It’s “shockingly easy for any minor that is represented by a lawyer to meet the requirements of the law regardless of whether they have been abused, neglected and abandoned,” said Jessica Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports increased immigration restrictions.
Migrant attorneys say the administration is using an administrative back door to curb the program. They say many of the requests for additional evidence are technical - requiring proof, for instance, that a state court’s order was issued according to that state’s law.
These advocates say a large chunk of cases being challenged by the Trump administration are those like Jose’s, in which applicants applied between the ages of 18 and 21, and in which the government has challenged the jurisdiction of state family courts in the proceedings.
Immigration rights groups have sued the government in California, New York and Washington state over what they say are blanket denials of petitions from that older group. In the California suit, a judge in February issued a preliminary ruling against the administration, saying state courts do have jurisdiction. A ruling is expected soon in New York, and the Washington suit was just filed Tuesday.
“These post-18 cases are the low-hanging fruit,” said Maria Odom, the former independent ombudsman for USCIS under President Barack Obama. “This is just one piece of (the administration’s) overall plan to destroy protections for unaccompanied minors to try to stop the flow.”
Underlying these disputes is a conflict over the purpose of the 1990 law authorizing the youth protection program.
The law was passed in response to growing concerns about foreign children becoming homeless or orphaned in the United States because of abandonment or abusive family situations.
Eligibility was expanded in 2008 under a U.S. anti-human trafficking law to include kids abandoned by just one parent even if they were being cared for by the other.
Applications ballooned during the Obama administration following a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, many from violent countries in Central America.
The government received 1,646 applications for the status in fiscal year 2010; in 2018, the number of applications jumped more than thirteenfold.
“This is not what the original law anticipated,” said Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies. “It was meant for kids who were trafficked.”
By statute, USCIS is supposed to process applications in six months, but Randi Mandelbaum, who runs a legal clinic at Rutgers Law School that serves immigrant foster kids, said she is handling a dozen cases that have been pending longer than a year. The delays can be painful, she said.
Young people “are already very vulnerable and now they can’t move on,” Mandelbaum said. “Their lives are on hold.”
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)
(Story corrected for spelling of USCIS spokesman’s name in 13th paragraph)