In court, immigrant children lead the line

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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


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