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Immigrant Youths

If you are a child, teenager, or young adult who was born in another country, you probably have a lot of questions about the rules of immigration.
Below are some frequently asked questions and answers:

  1. What does immigration status mean for children, teenagers, and young adults?
  2. How do I know if I am a U.S. citizen?
  3. I was born in another country, how do I know my immigration status?
  4. I have a green card. What does that mean?
  5. Can I apply to be a U.S. citizen if I am under 18?
  6. I am undocumented, can I ask immigration officers for permission to live or work in the United States?
  7. What should I do if I have a hearing in immigration court?
  8. I am an immigrant. What are my rights in school?
  9. I am an immigrant and I want to go to college. Am I eligible for financial aid?
  10. Can I get a driver’s license as an immigrant youth?
  11. What is the Selective Service and do I have to sign up?

What does immigration status mean for children, teenagers, and young adults?

There are many different types of permissions to live and work in the United States. Based on your situation, immigration officers give you a document showing the type of permission or immigration status they have given you. The document that the officers give you may be a certificate of citizenship, a green card, a work permit, a visa, or stamp in your passport. Each type of permission has different rules. Your “immigration status” is the type of permission that you have been given.

Here are some of the types of status you may have if you are a child, teenager, or young adult who was born in another country:

  1. U.S. Citizenship,
  2. Legal Permanent Residence (Green Card Holder),
  3. Special Immigrant Juvenile Classification,
  4. Asylum Applicant, asylee or refugee,
  5. F1 and J1 Student Visas
  6. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
  7. No status or undocumented

How can I know if I am a U.S. citizen?

Sometimes a child, teenager or young adult who was born in another country does not realize they have become a U.S. citizen. A person can become a U.S. citizen in the following ways:

  1. By being born in the United States, or
  2. By having a parent who is a U.S. citizen at the time of a person’s birth in another country, or
  3. By being adopted by a U.S. citizen, or
  4. By having a parent who becomes a U.S. citizen before the person turns 18 years of age, or
  5. By applying to become a citizen.

Follow the questions below to double check your citizenship. If you are still unsure, ask an immigration lawyer.  

Were you born in the United States or Puerto Rico?

  • Yes. You are a U.S. citizen.
  • No, I was born in a foreign country but when I was born, my mother or father was a U.S. citizen. You may have been born a U.S. citizen if your mother or father was a U.S. citizen at the time you were born. The rules of citizenship are complicated. To find out if you were born a U.S. citizen, immigration officers will consider when you were born, whether your parents were married, how long your U.S. citizen parent lived in the United States before you were born, and how long you have lived in the United States. If you think this applies to you, you should speak with an immigration lawyer to find out more. If you are a U.S. citizen you can ask immigration officers for a certificate of citizenship.
  • No, I was born in a foreign country, but when I was born, my grandparents were U.S. citizens. The immigration rules are very complicated in this situation, but you may have been born a U.S. citizen so it is good to check with an immigration lawyer.
  • No, I was born in a foreign country but my mother or father became a U.S .citizens after I was born. You may automatically become a citizen when you are under 18 and one of your parents becomes a U.S. citizen. The rules are complicated. Immigration officers will consider whether you were under 18, had a green card, lived with a U.S. Citizen parent, and whether you were married to determine whether you are now a U.S. citizen. If you think this applies to you, you should speak with an immigration lawyer to find out more. If you did become a U.S. citizen, you can ask immigration officers for a certificate of citizenship.
  • No, and neither my mother or father are U.S. citizens and I was not born in the United States.  You are probably not a U.S. citizen, but a citizen of another country. Find out more about the immigration status you may have.

I was born in another country, how do I know my immigration status?

If you were born in another country, it is important to find out if you have permission to live in the United States. Follow the questions below to learn more about your immigration status.

  1. Are your parents or grandparents U.S. citizens?
    • Yes. If your parents or grandparents are U.S. citizens, there is a good chance you are a U.S. citizen even if you were not born in the United States. Start by finding out if you are a U.S. citizen.
    • No. Continue to question 2.
    • I don’t know because I do not live with my parents. If you are living with a legal guardian or in foster family, your immigration status may be different than your parents. Continue to question 2.
  2. Do you have a green card? Do one or both of your parents have a green card?
    • Yes. If you have a green card, you are in the country legally as a legal permanent resident. If your parents have a green card, there is a good chance you also have a green card and are a legal permanent resident. Learn more about what it means to have a green card and be a legal permanent resident.
    • No.  Continue to question 3.
    • I don’t know because I do not live with my parents. If you are living with a legal guardian or in foster care, your immigration status may be different than your parents. Continue to question 3.
  3. Do your parents have permission to be in the United States?
    • Yes, my parents have work permits or visas. Check your passport to see if you have a stamp or a visa from immigration officers. If your parents have permission to be in the United States or work in the United States, there is a good chance you also have the same permission, or your parents can apply for you to have the same permission.
    • No, my parents do not have work permits or visas. If you were born in another country and your parents are undocumented (meaning they do not have permission to be in the United States), you may not have permission from immigration officers to live and work in the United States. Find out if you are eligible to apply for a type of permission to live and work in the United States.  
    • I don’t know because I do not live with my parents. If you are living with a legal guardian or in foster family, your immigration status may be different than your parents. Speak with your social worker or guardian. Check your passport. Consider whether you may be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, asylum for immigrant youth and children, or DACA. If you are still unsure, speak to an immigration lawyer.

I have a green card. What does that mean?

A green card is a document immigration officials give to an immigrant as proof that person has permission to live in the United States.  People with green cards are often called legal permanent residents. Immigration officials give many different kinds of permissions to stay in the United States. Legal permanent residence (a green card) is the only permission that can lead to U.S. citizenship.

Someone with a green card is not a U.S. citizen. A person who has a green card does not have all the same rights as a U.S. citizen. For example, a person who has a green card cannot vote in elections. But a person who has a green card still enjoys many rights. A person with a green card may live, work, and study in the United States.

The permission to stay is not permanent even though a person who has a green card is called a “legal permanent resident.” The permission can be lost. A person who loses their legal permanent residence risks deportation to their country of birth.

Green cards expire every 10 years but only the card expires. Your status does not change. You simply need to request a new card with a new photo and updated information about yourself.

A work permit is not a green card. If you have a work permit, you may be allowed to apply for a green card.  But you have to apply for the green card separately.

Every person with a green card has an “alien number” or “A number” that is written on the green card. You should make a copy of your card and keep the copy in a safe place. It costs a lot to replace a green card. If you lose your green card, you will need to know your “A number” to get a replacement card. 

See Guide for LPR Youth in Massachusetts.

Can I apply to be a U.S. citizen if I am under 18?

No. You cannot apply for citizenship if you are under 18. You must have a green card and be over 18 years old to apply for citizenship. See Citizenship and Naturalization.

If you are under 18 but your parents are eligible to become citizens, you will automatically become a citizen when your parents become citizens.

I am undocumented, how can I ask immigration officers for permission to live or work in the United States?

Not everyone is eligible to apply for permission to live and work in the United States. But, in certain situations, an undocumented person may be eligible to apply for permission from within the United States. The type of permission you can apply for is related to your personal situation and the situation of your family.

Depending on your situation, you might be able to apply for:

  1. Asylum if you are afraid to return to your home country, especially if you have suffered harm there in the past.
  2. Family reunification with family members who already have legal status or citizenship.
  3. Visas to protect victims of  trafficking.
  4. Special immigrant juvenile status, if you are under age 21 and have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent.
  5. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) if your parents brought you to the United States when you were still a child.

What should I do if I have a hearing in immigration court?

Immigration officers can start a case against you in immigration court when you are stopped by immigration officials at the border or anywhere in the United States and you do not have permission to be in the United States or have violated certain immigration laws.

Officers will give you a “Notice to Appear” (NTA). This is an official notice that you have to go to immigration court and defend yourself from deportation. You must attend all hearings. If you do not go to your hearing, the judge will order you deported, even if you have a very good reason why you should be able to stay.

  • How do I know when my next hearing in immigration court is?
    • If you have to go to immigration court, you have been given an Alien Registration number or “A number.” You can call the immigration court information line at 1-800-898-7180 and enter your A number to get information about your immigration case and hearings.
  • If I move, do I need to give my new address to the immigration court and immigration officials?
    • Yes. If you have had any contact with US immigration officials or you have ever gone to immigration court, it is very important to tell the immigration court and immigration officials every time you move so that you are notified when you have a hearing. You have ten days after you move to give the court and immigration officials your new address. There is a special form to send with your new address. You can get the form at the immigration court or online. If you are unsure or have questions about how to tell the court you have moved, talk with an immigration lawyer or other service provider.
  • Who is at risk of deportation?
    • If you are an immigrant and citizen of another country, you could face deportation if you do not follow immigration laws. Only citizens of the United States face no risk of deportation. You can be deported if you entered the United States without permission from the US government. You can be deported if you entered with permission but stayed after your visa or permission expired. You can also be deported for committing certain crimes, even if you have a valid visa or green card. If you find yourself in any of these situations, it is important that you attend all court hearings until your case is resolved. Deportation is a very serious matter and you should not try to handle it by yourself. Get the help of an experienced immigration lawyer to learn more about your rights.

I am an immigrant. What are my rights in school?

Every one, including immigrants and undocumented students, has an equal right to attend public elementary, middle, and high school. In Massachusetts, you are required to attend school if you are under 16 years of age. Different towns have different rules about students who are over 18 years old.

  • What do I need to enroll in school?
    • Different towns have different rules about what you need to bring to the enrollment office. Most towns require proof that you live in the town, like a bill with your address on it. Most towns also ask for identification, such as a birth certificate. Many towns ask you to be with a parent or legal guardian when you enroll in school.
  • What if I do not have the paperwork required by a town to enroll in school?
    • If you do not have one of the items required by a town to enroll, you still have a right to attend school.
      • If you cannot prove your address, you should ask to speak to the Homeless Liaison at the enrollment center, even if you are not homeless. Read more about your rights at Right to School for Homeless Children.
      • If you don’t have a birth certificate, schools should accept other documents to verify your age, like a baptismal certificate, an affidavit from a parent, or records from your old school. 
      • Schools are not allowed to prevent you from going to school if you do not have a social security number or you do not want to give them your social security number.
      • If after going to the enrollment center you are still having trouble enrolling in school, you should ask for the help of a lawyer or social worker.
  • What rights do I have in school if I have a disability?
    • If you have a disability and need special services or accommodations the school is required by law to provide them for you even if you are an immigrant or undocumented student.
  • What rights do I have if I do not speak English?
    • You have a right to attend school and learn English. The school is required to give you a test to see how much English you know, and if the test shows you need additional support to learn English, the school will offer you a class for students who are learning English. You have a right to reject the special class and ask to be placed in classes with English-speakers.
  • What rights do my parents have if they do not speak English?   
    • If your parent, guardian, or caregiver speaks another language at home, the school is required to use that language to communicate with your parents, guardian or caregiver in letters or over the phone. The school must provide a translator at all meetings.
  • If I am undocumented, can I still attend college?
    • There is no law that requires proof of citizenship in order to attend college. However, different schools often have different acceptance requirements. You should research a school’s rules before applying to find out if the school requires proof of citizenship or legal residency in order to attend.
  • If I am undocumented, can I still get in-state tuition at a public college or university?
    • Undocumented students are not eligible for in-state tuition at Massachusetts colleges and universities. This means that if you go to a public college in Massachusetts you will be required to pay full tuition at the same rate as someone coming to Massachusetts from another state. However, public colleges and universities can still be affordable with the help of scholarships and loans. It’s important to remember that if you have DACA, you are eligible for in-state tuition.
    • You can find out more information about state aid policies from the Department of Education.
  • I scored in the top 25% of my school district on the MCAS. Am I eligible for the Adams Scholarship?
    • The Adams Scholarship is awarded to graduating Massachusetts high school students who scored in the top 25% of their school district on MCAS. The Adams Scholarship waives tuition for up to eight semesters at any Massachusetts public university, state college, or community college. The tuition benefit must be used within six years of your high school graduation.
    • Before, the Adams Scholarship was limited to U.S. citizens and noncitizens eligible for federal Title IV financial aid. Now, a new rule allows immigrant students who have been granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), U visas, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or other types of Deferred Action, and Withholding of Removal, and as well as students with an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) or similar federal immigration documents may now qualify for the Scholarship.
    • If you received an Adams Scholarship Award Letter in the past that you were not able to use, you may now be able to use the award. To obtain this benefit for the current academic year, you must contact the financial aid office at your institution after January 1, 2016 with a copy of your Award Letter and your evidence of eligible immigration status and ask that your Adams Scholarship be applied to your tuition retroactive to the beginning of this academic year (Fall 2015).
    • If you are an immigrant student with questions about the applicability of the new Board policy to your situation, please contact Iris Gomez, Director of the Immigrants Protection Project at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute: (617) 357-0700.
    • If you are an immigrant student looking for other information, you may wish to contact the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM), a statewide immigrant youth organization.
  • If I am undocumented, can I still get financial aid from the federal government for college?
    • Undocumented students are not eligible for financial aid from the federal government. However, some financial aid may be available through private scholarships or grants. Additionally, some private colleges and universities offer assistance or full scholarships to undocumented students.
    • You can find out more about eligibility for federal financial aid from the Department of Education.
  • What private schools offer assistance or full scholarships to undocumented students in the Northeast region of the United States?
    •  Amherst College, Bard College, Bates College, Brown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Williams College, Tufts and Yale University, among others offer assistance to undocumented students. In some cases you may need to apply as an international student and/or apply for financial aid when you apply to the school. If you need help applying or have questions, you should ask your school’s guidance counselor or an admissions officer at the college you want to apply to.
    • You can find a list of scholarships available to undocumented students from the Department of Education.

Can I get a driver’s license as an immigrant youth?

You should have a social security number to apply for a driver's license. Identification documents from immigration officials, including green cards and work permit documents, will help you meet the identity and other RMV requirements.

See Guide to Get Drivers License for immigrant Youth.

What is the Selective Service and do I have to sign up?

The Selective Service System is used to keep information about men who could be made to serve in the armed services. Women and girls do not have to register for the Selective Service.

  • I am male but I am not a U.S. citizen. Do I have to register for the Selective Service?
    • Yes, registering for the Selective Service is required for all males over 18 years old. This includes men who are not citizens and men who do not have immigration papers. This is not the same as joining the military. The Selective Service simply keeps information about men who could serve in the military in the case of a national emergency, but the U.S. government has not required men to serve in the military since 1973.
  • When do I have to register?
    • If you are a man between the ages of 18 and 26 and you live in the United States, then you must register with the Selective Service. A man should register with Selective Service after his 18th birthday, but late registrations are accepted up until a man has reached age 26.
  • How do I register for the Selective Service?
    • You can register by filling out a form at any U.S. Post Office. You can also fill out the form online at www.sss.gov
  • What could happen if I don’t register for the Selective Service?
    • Registering with the Selective Service is required by law. People who do not register can be denied federal financial aid for college, a federal job, or federal job training. It could also affect your chances of becoming a U.S. citizen. If you have forgotten to register, it might not be too late. Contact the Selective Service Office. 
  • Can I volunteer to join the armed services if I have a green card, and I am not a U.S. citizen?
    • Yes, men and women who have green cards can join and serve in the armed forces voluntarily. 

Special Immigrant Juvenile Status

Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) refers to a classification or protection that our federal government gives some immigrant youth under age 21 who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent. Once classified as SIJ, you would be eligible to apply for a green card and obtain a permanent legal residency.

  • Who is eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) Status?
    • You may be eligible for special immigrant juvenile status if:
      • You are not married,
      • You are under the age of 21,
      • You have been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both of your parents,
      • It would be in your best interest to stay in the United States rather than go back to your home country.
      • You may also be eligible if one or both of your parents has died, if you never knew one or both of your parents, or if you are living with and being cared for by someone other than a parent.
  • What should I do if I think I am eligible for special immigrant juvenile status?
    • If you think you may be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile status, it is important to talk to your social worker, if you have one, and/or an experienced immigration lawyer to see if you are eligible to apply for any of these immigration protections.
  • What do I have to do to get SIJ status?
    • Step 1: Your social worker and/or lawyer must ask the Juvenile Court or Probate and Family Court judge to issue a special order that says that you meet all the eligibility requirements. Often you need to take the first step in Juvenile or Probate and Family Court before you turn 18.
    • Step 2: Your social worker and lawyer can show the decision from the Juvenile or Probate and Family Court to immigration officers (United States Citizenship & Immigration Services or USCIS) and ask immigration officers to classify you as a “Special Immigrant Juvenile.” This step must be done before you turn 21.
    • Step 3: If your request is approved then you can apply to become a Legal Permanent Resident of the United States and you will obtain your green card.
  • What are the disadvantages of SIJ?
    • A child who obtains special immigrant juvenile status will not be allowed to request immigration benefits for his or her parents, brothers or sisters, even when only one of the parents abandoned, neglected, or abused the child. 

It is important that you ask for help from your lawyer and/or social worker if you are thinking about applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile Classification.

Asylum for Immigrant Youth and Children

Asylum is a protection that the United States federal government offers to individuals that fear returning to their country of origin, especially individuals that have been hurt or threatened in the past.

  • Who is eligible?
    • If you are afraid of being hurt in your home country because of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or other special identity, and you believe that the government in your country cannot protect you, you may be eligible for asylum. You may also qualify if the government in your home country or an individual or group in your home country has hurt or threatened you in the past because of your identity.
  • When can I apply for asylum?
    • You must apply for asylum within a year of arriving in the United States. There are limited exceptions for special circumstances.
  • What should I do if I think I am eligible for asylum?
    • If you think you may be eligible for for asylum, it is important to talk to your social worker, if you have one, and/or an experienced immigration lawyer to see if you are eligible to apply for any of these immigration protections. If you are unable to find someone to help you with an application, there are Guides to help you apply yourself.
  • What are the benefits of asylum?
    • If you are granted asylum, you can live legally in the United States. After a year of receiving asylum, you are eligible to apply for legal permanent residency. Four years after becoming a legal permanent resident in the United States, you are eligible to apply for citizenship, if you are over 18. 
    • After receiving legal permanent residency status or becoming a citizen, you may petition for immigration benefits for certain family members, such as your parents.
    • If you are receive asylum, you could qualify for financial benefits offered by your state government, including: financial assistance, health insurance, nutritional assistance, and employment training.
  • What are the disadvantages?
    • If you are granted asylum you cannot return to your home country easily. In order to travel back to your country of origin, you must first obtain a specific form of permission from the United States government. The protection of asylum could be lost if you return to your home country before obtaining permission from the United States.

It is important that you ask for help from your lawyer and/or social worker if you are thinking about applying for asylum. 

F1 and J1 Student Visas

If you are a non-citizen and came to the United States to study at a college or university, you most likely have either an F1 or J1 visa. Both of these visas allow you to attend school full-time and work at an on-campus job while you are studying. But there are some important differences between the two visas, and all international students should know which visa they have and what it allows them to do.  

If you are unsure of what type of visa you have, or want to know what options are available to you, contact the office for international students at your school or an experienced immigration lawyer.

  • My non-citizen spouse and/or child came to the United States with me, are they allowed to study and work?
    • People with F2 visas, meaning they are the dependent spouse or child of someone with an F1 visa, are able to study and work in the United States.
    • People with J2 visas, meaning they are the dependent spouse or child of someone with a J1 visa, are not allowed to study or work.
  • I have a student visa and I’m about to graduate, what are my options for staying in the United States?
    • If you are here on an F1 visa and are graduating, you have 60 days after you graduate to change your status or leave the country. You may have options for staying up to one year, or if your field of study was related to science, technology, engineering and math you may be able to extend this to 17 months. After this time period, you may be able to stay on an employment based visa, if you have an employer who is willing to sponsor you.
    • If you are here on a J1 visa and are graduating, you have 30 days after you graduate to change your status or leave the country. You may have the option for staying up to 18 months after graduation, however you must have a job offer or offer for post-doctoral research (meaning you cannot use this time to find a job, you must already have received an offer). Additionally, you may be required to return to you home country and live there for at least 2 years if you received funding from the government of your home country.
  • I want to travel outside the United States, but plan on returning using my J1 or F1 visa. What do I need to know?
    • In general, make sure your passport is valid for at least six months AFTER the date you plan on reentering the United States. Before you leave you should consult your school’s office for international students or an immigration lawyer to find out what paperwork you need to have when you return. Don’t wait until you want to return to the United States to make a plan- there may be important documents you need to reenter, and without them you may not be allowed to, even if you only left for a short time.

Charts showing differences between F1 and J1:

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Last Updated May 2016

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