Miami Archbishop, legal services criticize expedited hearings and urge local counsel to represent unaccompanied children in Immigration Court

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Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski has appealed to immigration lawyers in South Florida to help represent many of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at the border. “It is a humanitarian crisis and we’re here to try to resolve it in a humanitarian way,” Wenski said during a press conference at the Archdiocese of Miami in Miami Shores on Friday, August 1.

Wenski’s plea came in response to a recent Department of Justice directive on expedited deportation proceedings for unaccompanied children arriving as of May 1. This means that, as of July 31 through September, three Miami immigration judges have set aside their regular dockets (which might include potentially dangerous individuals who should be quickly deported) to hear about 150 cases during their seven-hour work days – just 15 minutes to decide a child’s fate. Nationwide, 228 full-time immigration judges are already handling more than 375,500 cases with an average wait time for a decision of 587 days.

“Any child who has arrived after May 1 of this year, that case is being fast-tracked,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ). The average age of the arriving children is 7 to 9 years old, much younger than ever before. She said it is not yet clear how many children have been transferred to South Florida from the southwest border. Many of the children, mainly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, initially held in detention centers at the border are now arriving in South Florida where they have parents and other relatives. So their immigration proceedings have been transferred to immigration court here.

The National Association of Immigration Judges issued a letter July 22 to Congress outlining its special concerns related to juveniles in immigration court. “Some of our judges have reported concerns about the lack of quality of interviews [at the border] that have resulted in ‘negative credible fear’ findings and summary deportation orders at the border,” says the letter, signed by association president Dana Leigh Marks. “…It is particularly important that Immigration Judges be the ones charged with making these crucial determinations, rather than Border Patrol agents.”

Reports as of Friday, August 1 from attorneys who have started to attend the Miami Immigration Court with children said the three judges are setting continuances to dates between September and December. Meanwhile, an attorney reported that in one courtroom last week, the immigration judge and trial attorney discussed whether to put the undocumented parent, who appeared in court with her child, into deportation proceeding with her child. The parent was ultimately not placed in removal proceedings, but the discussion has created an additional layer of concern for attorneys and parents or guardians of the recently arrived minors.

Jacob Ratzan, president of the South Florida AILA chapter, which has 750 members, said the process is “happening too fast for children to get counsel [and] to get notices about their deportation. This is a humanitarian crisis that needs a humanitarian solution.” For example, reports indicate that children are not receiving Notices to Appear, which means attorneys do not have the opportunity to challenge errors on the document or even determine whether service on the child was lawful. There are various other legal and procedural aspects that lawyers may not be able to properly challenge in such an expedited process. The Immigration Judges association in its letter reminded Congress that any children under 16 “without responsible adults to help them cannot accept service of the charging documents, which initiate removal proceedings, and those under 14 without a responsible adult cannot enter pleadings to these charges.” They also added that children need time to find counsel and prepare evidence, and that having counsel makes the hearings more efficient and fair.

Randy McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services of Miami, blamed the Obama administration for “creating” a crisis in immigration courts just to show that the federal government is handling the issue of unaccompanied children. Additionally, he pointed out that since the children are largely being cared for by family and friends, they are not a financial burden on taxpayers, so there is no reason to expedite their removal and deny them due process.

Little suggested that expedited proceedings could result in deportation orders for children who fled deadly gang violence. “A deportation order is tantamount to a virtual death sentence,” she said. Manny Crespo, president-elect of the Cuban American Bar Association, said the expedited procedure was unfair because it put “innocent children in the cross-hairs of conveyor-belt justice.”

Attorneys willing to help represent children in Immigration Court should call Catholic Legal Services of Miami at 305-914-2157 or email uacvolunteers@gmail.com