On November 21, 2013, 13-year-old Gaby entered the United States via Hidalgo, Texas. She had journeyed there, alone, from Honduras. She was apprehended by border patrol, and after a stay in one of the federal shelters, was released to her two parents, who live in Dallas.
Gaby had last been seen in court in late July, when she'd been granted an extension to find a lawyer and prepare her case. On Thursday, unable to secure a lawyer, she was out of options. She slumped in her chair, her curly hair a veil to hide her face. Her mother was left to plead her daughter's case her to Judge Michael Baird.
Gaby is one of scores of children who grace Baird's court each week. What had previously been a generous, lengthy court process -- by some accounts, kids were given around 60 days to find a lawyer and prepare for their trials -- has morphed in recent weeks into a conveyor belt of life-changing decisions. Immigration judges are under increasing pressure to move these cases through the system as quickly as possible, over the objection of lawyers and advocates who say finding a lawyer and preparing a claim for asylum or other relief takes more time than they're being given. "You are well aware that these cases are moving at a brisk pace," said Baird today, addressing one lawyer who requested more time, "but I have orders to follow as well."
Gaby's mother tried to explain why Gaby had come to the United States. She glossed over a quick description of how Gaby and her younger brother were frequently assaulted when they went to the local marketplace, opting instead to paint a rosier picture of why Gaby had come to the United States. No one told her that the grisly marketplace details may have bought her more time, possibly allowing her to plead asylum.
She described Gaby's limited options if she had stayed in Honduras. "There are jobs, but you have to know English," said Gaby's mother in Spanish. To know English, you have to get an education, difficult in Honduras. Gaby's mother explained to the court that Gaby had come to the United States to study, to learn English, and to reunite with her parents, also undocumented, whom she had not seen in a few years.
Baird carefully explained to Gaby and her mother that Gaby was not eligible for any type of visa, and would likely have to leave the country. By choosing voluntary departure rather than an order of deportation, Gaby would avoid any fine, stay until December, and could apply for future US immigration benefits. Although Gaby would not be able to appeal the decision, it was a better option than the legal penalties of deportation.
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Logically, Gaby's mother understood that the voluntary departure option was the most sensible choice for Gaby. Several times, Baird read the conditions of voluntary departure to Gaby and her mother. But when he reached the end of his litany, he was required one final affirmation from Gaby's mother that she wanted her daughter to leave. Each time, Gaby's mother answered no, despite having agreed to the order minutes before.
Eventually tiring of the circling questions, Baird issued an order of deportation against Gaby, which her mother reluctantly agreed to.
"The truth is, I don't want her to leave," said Gaby's mother finally.
"I understand that you do not want to be separated ma'am," said Baird. "But you're asking for her to stay. And there is no legal way to do that."