NEW YORK — Yovany’s first opportunity to face the U.S. justice system came late Thursday morning, more than a month after his journey from Guatemala ended in a U.S. detention center near the Southwest border.
Alone, the 16-year-old entered an immigration courtroom in lower Manhattan and braced for mercilessness. Instead, he met Judge F. James Loprest Jr. “Do you have a lawyer?” the judge asked, his tone soft, his cadence gentle. He patiently explained that the nation’s immigration laws were complicated and encouraged the boy to get a lawyer to explore possible relief from deportation.
“I’m supposed to act as a referee,” Judge Loprest continued. “But I’m happy to give you the time that you need.”
Yovany was among 55 children who have come before the judge this week as part of a new accelerated court process, a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s strategy to deal with the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America.
Under the new procedures, the Justice Department is moving children who recently arrived to the head of the line to see immigration judges, possibly leading to deportation within a matter of months rather than years, the usual time frame amid the tremendous backlogs in the immigration court system. Quicker deportations, some officials have said, might send a strong message to the countries where the children are coming from and help to deter others from migrating illegally.
But immigrants’ advocates and service providers have been concerned that the accelerated process — known more formally as “priority dockets” and informally as “surge dockets” or “rocket dockets” — would somehow compromise due process. They worried that the Obama administration’s urgency to deport the new arrivals would make it much more difficult for the children to find affordable, competent legal help. They feared that in the rush, some children might not receive their notices of court hearings, leading to judgments in absentia and guaranteed deportations.
While some of those fears have been realized around the nation, the experience in New York City this week, service providers said, has been remarkably smooth. On Wednesday, the first day of the priority dockets, 29 of 32 children appeared for initial hearings — and one of those who failed to appear had never been notified, Legal Service providers said. On Thursday, 26 of 27 showed up. Judge Loprest set continuances for nearly all of the children in October and November.?
Before the surge of unaccompanied minors became a crisis for the Obama administration, the immigration courts in New York, among the nation’s busiest, held four special juvenile dockets every month for children facing deportation. In coordination with court officials, a coalition of groups — including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Catholic Charities Community Services, Legal Aid, Safe Passage Project and The Door — provided screening and free legal representation to the children.
In July, Justice Department officials announced their plan to reshuffle priorities and to put unaccompanied minors, as well as families with children, first in line to see immigration judges.United States - North America - New York - Central America - Latin America and Caribbean - Guatemala