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.