On any given day, the 10th floor of the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas is filled with men, women and children waiting to appear before an immigration judge. On certain days, like yesterday, many of them are Central American children, having arrived at the United States border, alone, during the recent so-called "surge" that's sent officials across the country, including in Dallas County, scrambling for a place to temporarily house them.
For a room filled with kids, teenagers, and their families, most were withdrawn and silent. The overhead lights bored into the crowd, as the bilingual secretary addressed them exclusively in Spanish. She arranged the kids and their families in order of age and home country, but just this first step in the court process was complicated and long-winded. Much of that has to do with miscommunication: Some kids didn't know they had to bring their parent or guardian with them to court. Some kids didn't bring the right documents. Some didn't know they could, or should, have brought a lawyer.
It's a process that two Texas lawmakers, Senator John Cornyn and Representative Henry Cuellar are hoping to scale back with their proposed Humane Act, which would cut down court times for these kids' cases. Under the Act, the kids would need to file a claim with immigration court within a week of being screened by the Department of Health and Human Services. From there, a judge would have to make a decision on their case within 72 hours, and many of the kids would be shipped right back.
But a morning in court reveals a system ill-equipped to process cases that fast, at least under current laws that provide relief for many Central American kids fleeing violence in their home countries.
The court secretary called roll, noting the absence of several kids. "Yeah, presente," one teen boy responded when his name was called. The secretary immediately chastised him. "You say, 'yes or no, si o no. Never 'yeah,'" she told him sternly. The boy, Miguel, reddened and looked down at his scuff-marked sneakers. But if the secretary seemed puritanical, it was only to prepare the kids for the ensuing formality of the courtroom.
There was no lack of gravitas when Judge Michael Baird walked into the room and began addressing the kids and their relatives. "All of you are here today because the government of the United States wants to remove you from this country," he said softly, his spectacled eyes slowly moving about the room and lingering on the youngest of the accused, a 10-year-old girl in pink overalls named Mariela.
But Baird has an excellent poker face. When each child was called forward -- and some unlucky enough to no longer be classified as children, if their eighteenth birthday had occurred in the last month -- a collected Baird read aloud the same scripted information. Is their parent or guardian present? Was this their address? Had they already provided fingerprints and a signature as court evidence? Did they understand why they were here?
The questions got more complicated when Baird asked each person if they had a lawyer representing them. Some kids, who had arrived without a parent or guardian, didn't seem to know if their parents had already contracted a lawyer or not. For these kids, Baird informed them that their case could not be processed until they brought a guardian. One boy, Javier, admitted his mother was downstairs in the lobby, too afraid herself to appear before an immigration judge. Out went Javier to haul his mother into court, fear be damned.
Only one child had a lawyer. This boy, Juan, was from Guatemala, and was granted Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status, for kids whose parents have abandoned them or been killed. Baird informed the rest of the kids, one by one, that they could reschedule their court dates for two weeks from now, if they desired, to allow them time to obtain legal services.
Each unrepresented child opted for the extension to find legal service. "Do you understand that not appearing in court on your appointed date would be devastating to your case?" Baird prompted each child before they left. He informed them that failing to appear would result in deportation and future permanent barring from American immigration services. A few visibly flinched, as the finality of the words cut each person he addressed.
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Some will return to the Cabell building in August, sans lawyer. That doesn't mean they didn't try. Immigration lawyers, especially in Texas, report stretched resources and the increasingly desperate need for pro bono lawyers. If the kids can't convince the lawyer, very quickly, that they have a case to stay in the United States, they will have to argue their own cases.
"It's tough. You need to get their whole story," says Stacy Jones, an attorney for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "The younger a child is, the less able they are to articulate what happened to them or why they came to the U.S., and the younger they are, they're likely not traveling with a ton of documents."
If the scene described to you sounds confusing and laborious, it should. And picture all of this imagining you speak only a smattering of English. Judge Dana Marks, president of National Association of Immigration Judges, says that this is precisely why the Humane Act bill is so absurd to those in the know. "Immigration law is repeatedly compared to tax law in terms of complexity," she says. "So it's problematic to think that a judge can explain to minors what their rights and responsibilities are, and to do it in an expedited fashion is extremely difficult."
It's hard to look around the courtroom at the faces of these kids, sitting next to their tios and tias -- less frequently with a parent -- and not think about what awaits them if they are sent back to their home countries. "The stakes for these kids can be life threatening. We often say we're doing death penalty cases if a person is fleeing persecution," Marks says. "If a judge makes a quick call and sends them back to their home country, they risk the fate of sending them back to possible death. And that's why it seems unrealistic that this bill would be workable."