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A judge has affirmed the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services' denial of extended foster care benefits to three 19-year-olds from Guatemala because they aren't citizens.

In an order late this week, Lancaster County District Judge Kevin McManaman said nowhere in the state law defining eligibility for the Bridge to Independence (B2I) Program is there "any expression, positive or otherwise," to justify the conclusion the Legislature intended for them to be eligible for enrollment in the program.

The Nebraska Appleseed Foundation filed the lawsuits on behalf of three teenagers granted federal Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

The status means they aren't U.S. citizens but ended up in foster care here after being abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents, and having courts determine that returning them to their home country wouldn't be in their best interest.

Under the status, they can apply for green cards to live and work permanently in the U.S. But the process takes years, said attorney Mindy Rush Chipman of the Immigrant Legal Center, who represented two of the three teens.

While still in foster care, as they neared the age of 19, they applied for the B2I Program, which extends foster care services such as medical care and other support until they turn 21.

But HHS denied them solely because of their immigration status.

The Nebraska Attorney General's office argued HHS was right to deny the teenagers'  participation because of another statute that prohibits public benefits from going to someone "not lawfully present in the country."

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That law passed in 2009, four years before lawmakers created the program to extend aid to foster kids who age out of the system.

In a decision released Thursday, McManaman said attorneys for the teens had relied on two "doubtful inferences" in the statute about help with adjustment of status in reasoning that state lawmakers intended to permit them in the B2I program.

But, he said, providing immigration status adjustment assistance to people didn't necessarily mean they were eligible for the program.

"Rather, at most, the statutory scheme indicates that the department can assist ineligible individuals by providing case management services that might result in an adjustment of their status," McManaman wrote.

The decision is likely to be appealed.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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Reporter

Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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