Undocumented juveniles are suing the Welfare Board of Georgia

The bill would ban unauthorized immigrants from accessing state or local public assistance, but only if they are over 18 years old.

Kylie Harrod is the communications director for the Georgia Department of Human Services, the umbrella organization under which DFCS operates.

“We are working closely with the attorney general’s office to review the allegations in this litigation and prepare a strong defense,” she said in a statement. “At this time, we must respectfully refuse to comment further on the merits of the lawsuit.”

Those filing the class action lawsuit are not asking for damages, but for a reversal of policy.

“A double whammy”

SCG was born in Guatemala and settled in the United States with his family as a child. Once in the country, SCG was abused and abandoned by his parents. At 15, he came into the care of the DFCS Polk County office after a juvenile court determined that it would not be in SCG’s best interests to be either reunited with his parents in the United States or sent back to Guatemala. SCG is one of the plaintiffs in this month’s class action lawsuit and is identified by his initials to protect his privacy. He is deaf and has been diagnosed with a developmental delay.

A victim of abuse in the custody of a government agency, at 15 SCG was eligible for a Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) classification, a type of immigration status that allows recipients to immediately apply for permanent residency or a green card.

Had state authorities taken over, SCG would have been on the road to legal status and could have remained in foster care after the age of 18.

Still undocumented on his eighteenth birthday earlier this month, SCG was instead forced to leave foster care, as required by Georgia law.

“Young people who leave foster care by the age of 18, and this is true for all young people, are much more likely to become homeless, suffer from food insecurity, become unemployed and become victims of crime, including human trafficking,” Rawlings said.

For immigrants like SCG, “It’s a double whammy because not only do you have these risks, you also have the risk that they might be deported.”

Rawlings and his co-counsel estimate that there are about 50 people in Georgia in similar situations to SCG.

Melissa Carter is Director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.

She says it is in the interest of the state to promote and protect the well-being of children living here, regardless of immigration status, and to help them grow into productive adults. However, she questioned the effectiveness of a lawsuit against the state Department of Human Services to achieve better outcomes for undocumented children and youth, noting that the federal government had a greater ability to shape their lives.

“I think it’s a shame,” she said. “I think there’s a missed opportunity here to frame this in a way that could really shape a public conversation and narrative that would better address the issue.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a report for members of America Corps covering immigrant communities in the greater Atlanta area.