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Note: What’s My Age Again? The Immigrant Age Problem in the Criminal Justice System

By Ross Pearson. Full text here.

Each year, immigrants arrive in the United States without knowing their exact age. When they arrive, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) provides each immigrant official documents that list personal information, including a birth date. When immigrants do not know their exact age, USCIS allows them to use an estimated birth date. As a result, these immigrants will hold official documents that list an exact date of birth, even though their date of birth is unknown. Although these estimated birth dates allow the government to administer benefits and track immigration flow, they lack certainty and accuracy.

The uncertainty and inaccuracy in the estimated birth dates of these immigrant children creates the immigrant age problem, which arises when these immigrants clash with a criminal justice system that demands age-specificity at three stages. First, a defendant’s age may determine which court – juvenile or adult – has jurisdiction. Second, a defendant’s or victim’s age might be an element of the crime, requiring the State to prove age beyond a reasonable doubt. Third, a defendant’s age may limit the maximum sentence a court may impose.

This Note examines the origins of the immigrant age problem and explains how immigrants with unknown birth dates can legally obtain official documents listing exact birth dates. It then analyzes the legal dilemmas that the immigrant age problem creates. Finally, it proposes a solution to the immigrant age problem at each of the three relevant stages of the criminal process.