While comprehensive immigration reform is flailing in the murky waters of midterm congressional elections and Republican intransigence, the humanitarian concern for unaccompanied children escaping from violence in northern Central America and seeking refuge in the U.S. has captured the attention of many. Since October according to Homeland Security there have been 52,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. – double the number from last year.
The kids are generally first sent to detention centers where they are screened and catalogued and then dispersed throughout the country to family members, foster care or other facilities. According to a law signed by President George W. Bush those who come unaccompanied from countries not contiguous to the U.S. such as Central America can not be immediately returned to their land of origin. Instead they are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge and an opportunity to seek asylum – a drawn-out procedure with no public defender, a confusing legal system, and slim chances for gaining legal status.
Some of the children end up in New Jersey where there are two immigration courts but only one with a juvenile docket. It is in Newark on the twelfth floor of the Federal Building on Broad Street. I spent a few hours at the court, passed through slow, rigorous security at the entrance, talked with several of the children (I speak Spanish), and at one point was ordered by a judge to appear before him to explain who I was and why I was taking notes. But this is a story about the shy, quiet, and nicely dressed kids appearing before judges who have the authority to deport them back to a tumultuous, dangerous existence.
The court area occupying an entire floor is air-conditioned and quiet like a calm sea. In the individual court rooms the judges who wear no robes speak in soft voices. There is a waiting area with adjoining private rooms where lawyers can meet with clients. Here one can pick up an updated local legal services provider list. In a vacant court room an individual gives a video presentation of advice in Spanish on frequently asked questions. There are currently only five judges in this immigration court. In each court room there is a judge, a clerk, a Spanish language translator, and a Homeland Security prosecutor. In many of the cases the youth defendant has no lawyer. The hearings I witnessed yesterday did not involve detained minors nor were they deportation hearings, but rather the laborious steps leading in that direction.
The first teenager, who I will call Pablo, told me he spent almost two months traveling from political and gang violence in El Salvador and is now living in NJ with his aunt. The judge and translator spent about two minutes at this preliminary hearing explaining his rights (including to seek asylum, to have a lawyer at his own expense, and to file an appeal after a deportation ruling) and his obligations (to appear at the next hearing and to inform the court of any change of address). He seeks asylum and was provided a complex 12-page legal questionnaire with a 13-page instructions sheet all in English to complete within one year of his arrival. He has no lawyer and speaks no English. His aunt despairs of achieving success. His next hearing is set for January 15, 2015.
Another youth, who I will call Javier, has been to court before and has been in the U.S.A. for over a year. As he just turned 18 and is no longer a juvenile the judge transfers his case to another judge. He comes from Guatemala and is enrolled in school. He has a lawyer present and is told to appear before an unnamed judge on January 15.
A third younger child just recently came from Guatemala on what he said was a 15-day dangerous trip during which he was assaulted. He said he is afraid of returning to Guatemala. He seek asylum, has no lawyer and was told to return in January. He was accompanied by a young adult who said he was paid by a parent to escort the kid to court because the parent had to be at work.
I listened to eight rather similar hearings before two different judges. The scared but respectful children in all cases limited themselves to saying yes or no and agreeing that they understood their rights and obligations, even though at their young age they must have been bewildered by the process. When asked if they had questions they all said no.
The lengthy delays from one hearing to the next and the speed of each hearing speak to a federal court overwhelmed by kids fleeing into an American system where there are not enough judges, ancillary staff, funds, or lawyers knowledgeable about youth immigration. If federal courts provide judges and prosecutors for these vulnerable minors they should also provide public defenders. The few defense lawyers in attendance seem harried. And as to the youth, they are referred to in documents as an “alien” – a term often used to denote things that are disturbing, distasteful, or even extraterrestrial. In reality they are just kids seeking safety.
As a side note: I was not surprised that the Judge asked me to appear before the bar as his clerk first came and wanted to know why I was in the room taking notes. Then the two stepped out for a few minutes, and then I was summoned. I explained why I was there and that I would maintain the confidentiality of these minors. The judge agreed I had a right to be there, so I sat through a few more hearings and left feeling sad.