Rocket Dockets for Kids in Immigration Courts Raise Doubts About Fairness

Last week, we told you about 13-year-old Gaby, who was given an order of deportation from immigration Judge Michael Baird. Gaby is from Honduras, and will be sent back this fall after having been in the United States for less than a year. Her court appearances will have taken place in the course of just over a month, a dramatically hastened process from juvenile cases even a year ago.

See also: In Dallas' Time-Crunched Immigration Court, a Mom Watches Her Teen Daughter Get Deported

It's an effect immigration lawyers are calling rocket dockets. And it's primarily affecting all those unaccompanied kids from Central America pouring into Dallas that you've been hearing so much about.

Where most children had been given around 60 days to navigate the court process, judges across the country are expediting unaccompanied minors' cases to, in some cases, just a few weeks. And both lawyers and families are feeling the pinch. "You are well aware that these cases are moving at a brisk pace," said Judge Baird in court last week, addressing Human Rights Initiative attorney Bill Holston when he requested more time, "but I have orders to follow as well."

Outside of court, Holston said the rushed process isn't giving the kids enough to build solid cases. "This truly is about due process. Immigrants have fewer constitutional rights, but that doesn't mean they have none," he said.

"The ones we're talking about have legal relief available, but they're not given the time to find a lawyer and argue the case. That's a due process argument. And these are difficult cases to develop. Some of these children have been through terrible things, and to compress that into a couple of weeks to develop the case, that's very hard."

Immigration lawyer Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez confirms that the speedy process is affecting predominantly juvenile cases, calling the rush "ridiculous." And from the opposite side of the bench, although they're more prone to private complaining, judges are just as frustrated.

Judge Dana Marks is the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. She says judges are getting pushed to move juvenile cases through the system at a faster clip. "We are members of the community as well and understand the dynamics at work," she says. "There has been pressure from the Department of Homeland Security to move these cases along."

Much of the pressure, she says, can be attributed to immigration judges' heavy dockets. "To a certain extent, what the public is now seeing is what immigration judges have been seeing for some time. Our dockets are so clogged that one feels pressure at all times," she says.

And the financial resources are not there to support the flow of cases: "$18 billion goes to immigration enforcement in the United States. In comparison, 1.7 percent is allocated to immigration courts for us to do our jobs. So it's minuscule, and that's where we feel that it has gotten more and more unbalanced," says Marks.

"It's not a sustainable way to run a court system," she continues. "You can't continue to add money to the immigration enforcement system without realizing that a certain percentage of those cases are going to end up in immigration court, and you need to allocate funds to that."

The stakes are potentially life-threatening, and advocates worry that the hastened court processes for juveniles could lead to equally quick rulings. "It's our job to make sure that we deliver due process regardless of how busy we are. But it obviously makes it a much more difficult task and judges are human beings too," Marks says. "So it's not optimal for someone to work under such pressure, because one would guess it makes mistakes much more likely to happen."