Children who fled violence in Central America are being forced to navigate the US immigration system without a lawyer. It usually ends in deportation.
A May Day rally for immigration reform in Los Angeles. Photo by Salina Canizales
Courtroom X, on the 17th floor of a nondescript office building in downtown Los Angeles, is a cramped and bland-looking space about the size of a classroom. It seems like an appropriate place to adjudicate traffic citations. Instead, it’s a place where veritable death sentences are handed down to children.
Just two months ago, before the Ferguson protests, the Islamic State beheadings of two American journalists, and the celebrity-nude-picture hack, the Central American child refugee crisis briefly dominated the headlines and sent Congress into conniptions. Republican lawmakers, with support from the Obama administration, called for changes to existing law to allow the government to deport tens of thousands of children with asylum claims much more rapidly. Democrats balked, and in what has become a ritual in Washington, Congress deadlocked, went on recess, and the status quo prevailed.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the legal process hasn’t changed for the refugees themselves. In the absence of congressional action, the Obama administration quietly accelerated the pace of deportation hearings for unaccompanied minors, aiming to cut the wait time for an initial hearing down to 21 days, a process referred to informally by civil rights advocates as the “rocket docket.” Every day, in cities all over the country, teenagers, children, and even infants appear in rooms like Courtroom X, without an attorney, ostensibly to argue their case for asylum against a government prosecutor trained and practiced in one of the most complex bodies of law in existence.
The look of the proceedings is exactly how you would imagine it: part parody of due process, part bureaucratic stage acting, and part struggle to provide real justice under extremely harsh conditions.
It was 9:50 AM in Courtroom X. About a dozen people, mostly unaccompanied minors and members of their families who reside in the United States (refugees who come to the US typically do so to join family members here), crowded several rows of benches on one side of the courtroom. Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor presided over the hearings. Her demeanor plainly showed that she had administered this drill hundreds of times before; she was polite, but firm. She explained the legal circumstances to the audience before her, and asked for confirmation that they understood. It was obvious that it mattered to her that the defendants before her were given every opportunity to exercise their full legal rights, within the extremely narrow parameters that the courtroom allowed.
She asked the first defendant on the docket a series of basic biographical questions. The girl was 17 years old. She came from Honduras, where her father still lived. On this day, she was staying with her aunt and her mother in Bakersfield, about two hours from downtown Los Angeles.
This hearing, however, was for minors who did not have parents currently residing in the United States, and so the judge reset the girl’s case for the second week of September. It was now 9:52 AM.
The judge went down the list of the other children in the room, asking the same questions each time. Armando* was 16 years old. He was in court with his uncle. He came from Guatemala, where both his mother and father still lived. He was currently staying in the Westlake neighborhood of LA.
Raul was also 16. He was with his aunt; his mother lived in Guatemala. He didn't know where his dad lived. He was staying in South LA.
Sandra was 13. She was seated with her sister, Jessica, who was 9. They both came from El Salvador. So did Oscar, 16 years old. He was staying in North Hollywood.
It was now 9:56 AM.
Judge Tabaddor explained to the defendants the legal facts of their situation: In the government's view, all of the defendants were in the country illegally and should be removed. She asked them to confirm that the court had the proper addresses for where they were currently residing in the US so that removal notices could be delivered if—or in most cases, when—they were issued by the court.
She explained that they had a right to acquire representation by an attorney, but at no expense to the government. These were not criminal proceedings, so she could not appoint an attorney for them, but she did provide them with a list of legal aid groups that may be willing to offer them free counsel. It was the defendants’ responsibility to find an attorney. Did the defendants wish to find an attorney? Yes, they said, nodding.
Judge Tabaddor held up two thick books. These, she explained, were books on immigration law and procedure. The attorneys the defendants obtained should be thoroughly versed in the contents of these books, she said, since immigration law is extremely complex and attorneys who are not experts in it would not serve the defendants’ interests.
The judge also warned them to stay away from “notarios." In some Latin American countries, the word “notario” refers to full-fledged lawyers. In the US, it refers to notaries public, who notarize legal documents. Some notarios will use this unfortunate discrepancy to pose as qualified attorneys. They will sound like they know what they are talking about, but they do not. Stay away from them, Judge Tabaddor inveighed. They would not be able to help in these asylum claims.
US immigration agents at the world's busiest border crossing in San Ysidro, California. Photo by Josh Denmark
If this group of defendants reflected national trends, most of them would not find free or affordable lawyers to argue their asylum claims. With their lives potentially on the line, they would be forced to represent themselves. Without legally mandated government-appointed counsel, there are simply too many refugees, too much haste in deportation proceedings, and too few pro bono attorneys to provide real due process.
The judge reset their cases for November and dismissed the room. It had only been about 15 minutes since the first defendant on the docket was questioned and a little over an hour since the courtroom opened that morning.
In the hallway, Sandra’s aunt explained to me why her niece fled El Salvador. The region they came from, La Paz, has a heavy gang presence. Some of Sandra’s family members had already been recruited into the gang, which, she said, made the rest of the family visible to the gang and therefore a target. Gang members had threatened to kidnap Sandra. They knew that Sandra’s aunt lived in the US and demanded that she start sending the gang money.
Sandra’s entire school was threatened with violence by gang members from La Mara Salvatrucha, her aunt explained. The school principal sent out a letter to all of the students’ families informing them of the danger.
The risks to her safety in El Salvador were great, and Sandra fled the country. She made it to Texas before being detained and then spent a month in a detention center there. The room was cold and she claims that she was given no clothes to keep warm. According to her aunt, she was treated poorly by the staff.
She was transferred to a second detention center in McAllen, Texas. Circumstances there were much better. They had better rooms and even a school.
Now, she was in California with her aunt, but the threat of deportation looms. Altogether, she had been in the US four months.
What would happen to Sandra if the judge ruled against her, as most immigration judges do to most asylum claimants?
Her aunt began to explain while Sandra listened and her nine-year-old sister began fidgeting, as nine-year-olds tend to do. If Sandra was forced to return to El Salvador, her aunt explained, she would face the risk of injury, and maybe death. Several children who had been sent back to the homes they fled had been killed, she told me. (Press reports bear out her assertion.)
Sandra was ready to leave this conversation—to leave the building behind and get back to her new home, however temporary that home might prove to be. It was written on her face and in her nervous fidgeting.
I thanked them for their time and their openness and let them go.
In a few months, Sandra will return to Courtroom X, likely without an attorney, to find out whether the immigration judge will allow her temporary respite to be her permanent salvation, or whether she will be sent back to the miserable and potentially lethal circumstances she risked her life to escape.
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Editor's Note: All names have been changed for the protection of those interviewed.