New MN law expands immigration protections for at-risk youth

Jan H. Andersen –

Minnesota has joined several states in raising the age limit for young immigrants who have escaped trauma to receive legal protections in the United States.

This week, Gov, Tim Walz signed a bill increasing the age limit from 18 to 21 to seek Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, aligning Minnesota law with federal statute. The process allows young people who left their home country unaccompanied, fleeing an abusive situation, to secure judicial guardianship at the state level. They then apply for the federal SIJ status, with a path toward citizenship.

State Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, led the efforts through the House.

“It confronts this issue on a regular basis with young people who realize that their immigration is an issue later in their teens and then, are up against that deadline of their 18th birthday,” she said.

When the state age cutoff is below the federal threshold, the teen faces deportation. Feist, who also is an immigration attorney, said that puts them back into a traumatic situation. She added that this affects roughly 70 people a year in the state. The bill had broad bipartisan support, although the federal component is under scrutiny over case backlogs.

Despite those issues, Minnesota advocates have said relief at the state level still is important. Veena Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said not only is there more stability for these youth, it benefits their communities as well.

“We’re talking about folks who have come here as young people,” she said, “many of whom end up finishing high school getting their GED in the United States – and then are such an important part of the labor force.”

She said that’s especially helpful for rural Minnesota, where there are challenges in finding skilled labor. Immigration experts who track these policies say nearly a dozen other states have taken similar action.

Mike Moen is a writer for the Minnesota News Connection.