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Undocumented unaccompanied children face deportation court hearings

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Protesters hold a demonstration in San Francisco demanding recognition for refugee children entering the United States on July 21, 2014. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Judge Rebecca Jamil walked into Courtroom 11 at the Immigration Court in San Francisco and took her seat to begin the “master calendar.” She introduced herself to the court and immediately launched into the proceedings. One after another, cases were presented, names were called out and the next course of action was swiftly decided.

By the second case, I realized these were all initial deportation hearings for children and minors. The courtroom was filled with young, brown faces closely watching the interchange between lawyers, interpreter, judge and respondent.

Next to me, a woman sat with a young boy clutching a mini Spider-Man backpack, and a teenager who shifted restlessly as each new case was announced.

Legal counsel Lisa Knox from Centro Legal De La Raza went up with her first set of clients, Morales and Ronaldo. When she finished she ushered in the next, Leonardo and Fernando, and then the next, Lorenzo.

“You’re taking all these cases on,” Judge Jamil said as she smiled at Knox. “That’s wonderful,” she said as she picked up the next file. The woman beside me met my eyes and smiled. Her smile broke the formality of the courtroom proceedings. It brought home, inescapably, that behind each case file on Judge Jamil’s desk, there were real people with real aspirations, real dependencies, real fears and real moments of pleasure.

When Knox’s cases were dealt with, Judge Jamil asked the people assembled in the courtroom if anyone needed legal counsel and several raised their hands. Knox volunteered to be their counsel and herded them out.

The name of the next lawyer, Jon Wu, was called, and a teenager accompanied by his lawyer headed to the respondent table.

Wu answered the judge’s questions carefully about his 18-year-old client, Vasquez, from Guatemala. He admitted to the factual allegations and conceded removability or in other words, deportation, and then went on to state that he was going to apply for asylum for his client. The judge gave the lawyer three months to apply for asylum, and the hearing for that respondent was done.

This was pretty much the same strategy adopted by all the lawyers in the cases I heard that day.

This pipelined process of adjudication raised the following questions: What rights do respondents have in deportation proceedings and how can our immigration policies balance fairness, speed and application of the law?

Wu, who runs his own law firm, Wu Jon Law in San Francisco, explains that undocumented unaccompanied minors have the right to a fair hearing, like anyone else, and they have the right to a lawyer — but not the right to a lawyer at government expense. The limitation, Wu said, was that they do not have the right to apply for adjustment of status.

Since March 1, 2003, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has handled the care of unaccompanied minors. Within 72 hours of apprehension at the border, undocumented unaccompanied children are sent to ORR, where they are then processed and placed with a family member, a sponsor, shelter, foster home or a secure facility. It is at that point that unaccompanied minors are given a hearing date and asked to appear at Immigration Court, like the one I attended.

Unlike adult screening, questioning and detainment procedures, children are dealt with in a non-adversarial setting. “This is to minimize the extraordinary level of stress these kids undergo, fleeing from often extremely dire situations in their home countries and leaving family members,” says Wu. He lists domestic violence, molestation, trafficking, gang violence, enlistment into drug trades and poverty as the leading causes for their dangerous journeys to our borders.

“How can you be fair to kids who cannot advocate for themselves?” Wu asks. He calls it a moral dilemma, saying that unaccompanied minors are, in his experience, mostly good kids with very little education who are trying to escape really bad situations at their homes. So the question becomes, if you help them in the name of humanity, are you also assisting those predators who helped them in this illegal quest for life in America? The smugglers and middlemen who make money preying on kids just like Vasquez and Leonardo and Morales and Fernando?

The idea of a “comprehensive” immigration policy is perhaps too stretched in its reach. No matter what internal policy we have in place, we are not going to be able to stop or significantly choke the flow of illegal unaccompanied child arrivals unless we work with our neighbors in the region. Solutions need to account for why these children are leaving their homes and traversing hostile landscapes to reach the safety and consideration that America promises.

In the fiscal year 2016 (Oct. 1, 2015, to Feb. 29, 2016) there were 23,553 unaccompanied children apprehended at the Southwest border. This number is up 89 percent from the same period last year. So the problem is here to stay.

It seems like we have many reasonable arrangements in place, including non-adversarial processing of unaccompanied children, placement in safe harbor homes and quick court hearings. Court delays could become goals for undocumented immigration, and that’s a situation we must avoid.

What we need to figure out is how best, how expeditiously and how fairly can we repatriate or integrate undocumented unaccompanied children. Certainly, we don’t want to return these kids to hostile situations, merely to have them once more forge dangerous alliances to return to our borders and become a case file yet again on the Immigration judge’s desk.

Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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