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Unaccompanied Children Face a Disadvantage in Immigration Court

Most of the children from Central America who have crossed the border in the southwest recently have found themselves at a major disadvantage as they have not had the opportunity to have a lawyer represent them in removal proceedingsbefore the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review. More than 66,000 children have crossed our border and have surrendered to the U.S. government.  With only 228 Federal Immigration Judges in the entire country, the case dockets have been overloaded with the recent surge in migration across the border.   In Miami, four judges have been assigned to the unaccompanied minor dockets.

The Obama administration has called for a fast-track in removing these children but because of the rush, these children who may be fleeing from pervasive crime, abuse and neglect, may not be getting their voices heard. Rather they are being rushed through the system without due process due to the agenda of the administration.  It is interesting and important to note that approximately half of the children who were able to obtain representation have been allowed to remain in the United States. On the other side of the story are the children who have not been able to find representation. Ninety percent of the unrepresented children have been ordered deported or removed from the United States.

A few non-profit organizations in Miami, have been come to be known asFriends of the Court. This group has been assigned to help these minors in representing them before the immigration judge. The problem with these “Friends” of the Court is that they serve to help the Court, as the name implies, to clear its docket and not entirely in helping the unaccompanied minor in their plea to stay safely in the United States.  What the Friends of the Court have been able to accomplish is to help gather the relevant biographical information about the children, necessary for the court and to ask the court for addition time so that the children can find an attorney to represent them. This group has been able to serve as a small level of defense against immediate removal, but it is equivalent to placing a small band-aide on a major wound.

Last month, the Chief Judge of the Immigration Court, the Honorable Brian M. O’Leary, distributed a memo, setting a limit on just how much the Friends of the Court are able to do.  While immigration cases before the immigration court can take several years to calendar and be heard, the current administration has expedited the unaccompanied minor cases so that their initial or “master calendar” hearing takes place within three weeks, rather than instead of several months.

Recently a federal court in Seattle denied a preliminary injunction asking for representation for unaccompanied minors and a generous continuance before the court.   Children, especially unaccompanied immigrants, who need more protection are being given an unfair advantage, especially in immigration court. Adult immigrants who face the same charges and are place in removal or deportation proceedings can wait up to a year for their initial master calendar hearing and up to three years for an individual hearing. Somehow this just doesn’t seem like justice.