Lawyers fear speedy deportations harm minors

August 27, 2014

(AP/Eduardo Verdugo)
Central American migrants climb on a northbound train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border, in Ixtepec, Mexico.

Lawyers who work with unaccompanied, illegal child migrants in Chicago are raising the alarm over new fast-track deportations, saying the process may result in a denial of due process in court. Referring to the expedited schedulings as the “rocket docket,” many fear that children may be scheduled for court hearings so quickly that they may not have time to find lawyers, or if they do, their lawyers will not have enough time to craft a defense case. Ultimately, this could result in more children returning to the dangerous environments that they’d fled.

“We somehow got notice of hearings that they had been scheduled to attend in Chicago on a Monday, and this was on a Thursday or Friday when they contacted us, ” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “We thought it was a fluke or a glitch in the system.”

The NIJC helps thousands of immigrant children that pass through federal shelters in Chicago. Koop said kids who arrived in the Spring originally had seven or eight months between the time the Department of Homeland Security filed a Notice to Appear in Chicago’s immigration court, and the “master calendar hearing,” which signals the opening of removal proceedings against an immigrant. But those hearings have suddenly been moved up several months, to August.

“That’s not a lot of time to secure an attorney, begin to develop case theory, start to strategize about how this case ought to be prepared and presented moving forward,” said Koop.

In fact, Koop said scores of children whose master calendar hearings were moved up had not even received notice of the change.

“We very quickly learned a lot of the children weren’t aware they had these hearings,” she said, “either because the notices hadn’t reached them yet or because the notices had been sent to an incorrect address.”

The address discrepancies were likely because the child had been reunited with family elsewhere in the country shortly after the Notice to Appear had been filed in Chicago.

“We’ve really shifted gears and our whole staff is just calling all of these kids that are on dockets, and trying to figure out where they are, and letting them know they have court,” she said. Koop said NIJC attorneys have been getting permission from the children to move to change venue for the children’s cases. On one day earlier this month, they filed 200 motions for change of venue on behalf of kids that once, but no longer, were sheltered in Chicago.

The U.S. is dealing with record numbers of unaccompanied children coming across the Southwest border. In the ten months leading up to August, nearly 63,000 were caught. More than three-quarters come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Koop said nearly 60 percent of the children that the NIJC screens in Chicago shelters are eligible for asylum, or some other form of protection against removal.

“Our concern is that there is a compromise of due process when they’re required to press forward with a case before they’re able to fully prepare it, before they’re able to have any opportunity to recover from whatever trauma or negative experience gave rise to the need for them to flee,” she said.

Attorneys who work with unaccompanied minors say trauma, and deep emotional distress, is common among child migrants. Alex, a 17-year old Salvadorian who fled his home two years ago to avoid recruitment to a gang, is one example. Because he fears reprisals against his family, WBEZ is not using his full name.

“I had been jumped on three occasions and I didn’t feel safe. I wanted to move... from my home to another place, but I didn’t know where to go,” said Alex. “My country is small and the gangs are everywhere. My dad had also become afraid that they might kill me, or something. He said maybe the best way for me to get away from them would be to come to the United States.”

Alex’s father arranged for him to take buses and cars with strangers from El Salvador, through Guatemala, into Mexico, and ultimately across the U.S. border. He made the journey with dozens of others. But after days walking and sleeping in the desert, they were caught by border patrol.

Alex was taken to a children’s shelter in Houston, where lawyers tried to start working on his case. But he fell into a deep depression.

“When I had those problems, I didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Alex said. “I didn’t want to leave my room. I just stayed in bed.”

The lawyers couldn’t help Alex in that condition, so they transferred him to a mental health treatment center for nine months. Ultimately, Alex recovered and won asylum. He’s 17 now, and lives with family in Chicago.

Without that time to recover, Alex said he wouldn’t have been able to help his lawyer understand why returning home would be dangerous. Under the new docket system, he likely would have been sent back. That’s what lawyers fear will happen now to other children.

The Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review confirmed that it’s prioritizing children’s removal cases, but denied that it compromises due process. In an email to WBEZ, a spokeperson wrote “...the immigration judge ensures that the individual understands the alleged immigration law violations. The judge also provides information on available free or low-cost legal representation resources in the area.”

But lawyers who help migrant children say that’s not enough. It often takes several months for children to schedule a legal screening and to secure an attorney who’s willing to take the case for free. Experts who work with the children say they hope immigration judges across the country will grant children continuances in their cases, to allow them extra time to find counsel. But even that may not be enough.

“The rubber’s really going to meet the road when the children show up after these several weeks of their continuance, and what the judge does if the child does not have an attorney,” said Megan McKenna of Kids in Need of Defense, a New York-based nonprofit that helps migrant children find pro bono attorneys across the U.S.

“What we’re going to be seeing is 70-90 percent of these children will not be represented in their deportation proceedings,” McKenna added, “and that can mean children being sent back to situations of harm, and this is the harm they fled.”

Vocalo’s Luis Antonio Perez contributed translation for this story.
Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau Reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.