LINCOLN, Neb. — A judge will decide whether a Nebraska agency violated state law by denying three teenagers to enter a foster care transition program because of their immigration status.
A lawsuit against the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services involves three 19-year-olds from Guatemala who are under federal Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. The status means the teenagers aren't U.S. citizens but are in foster care after being abused, abandoned or neglected, the Lincoln Journal Star reported .
Courts determined that returning the teens to their home country wouldn't be in their best interest. They can apply for green cards, but the process can take years, said Mindy Rush Chipman, an Immigrant Legal Center attorney representing two of the teens.
The department denied the teens' application to the Bridge to Independence (B2I) Program, which extends foster care services such as medical care until individuals turn 21.
Rush Chipman said the decision was based solely on the teenagers' immigration status and violates Nebraska statutes, including the law that created the program and outlines its services.
A specific provision directs case managers to assist young adults in the program to "obtain the necessary state court findings and then apply for special immigrant juvenile status ... or apply for other immigration relief that the young adult may be eligible for."
Requiring an individual to have lawful permanent residency or citizenship to have access to the B2I program "renders that part of the statute completely meaningless," Rush Chipman said.
Assistant Attorney General Ryan Gilbride has argued that the department can legally deny the teens because of a statute that prohibits public benefits from being given to someone "not lawfully present in the country." The law was passed in 2009 before lawmakers created the B2I program.
Gilbride said the department can help applicants try to become lawfully present in the country to qualify for the program, but that the agency is not required to do so.