SAVING CHILD MIGRANTS WHILE SAVING OURSELVES
By Paul Wickham Schmidt
They cross deserts, rivers, and territories controlled by corrupt governments, violent gangs, and drug cartels. They pass through borders, foreign countries, different languages and dialects, and changing cultures.
I meet them on the final leg of their trip where we ride the elevator together. Wide-eyed toddlers in their best clothes, elementary school students with backpacks and shy smiles, worried parents or sponsors trying to look brave and confident. Sometimes I find them wandering the parking garage or looking confused in the sterile concourse. I tell them to follow me to the second floor, the home of the United States Immigration Court at Arlington, Virginia. “Don’t worry,” I say, “our court clerks and judges love children.”
Many will find justice in Arlington, particularly if they have a lawyer. Notwithstanding the expedited scheduling ordered by the Department of Justice, which controls the Immigration Courts, in Arlington the judges and staff reset cases as many times as necessary until lawyers are obtained. In my experience, retaining a pro bono lawyer in Immigration Court can be a lengthy process, taking at least six months under the best of circumstances. With legal aid organizations now overwhelmed, merely setting up intake screening interviews with needy individuals can take many months. Under such conditions, forcing already overworked court staff to drop everything to schedule initial court hearings for women and children within 90 days from the receipt of charging papers makes little, if any, sense.
Instead of scheduling the cases at a realistic rate that would promote representation at the initial hearing, the expedited scheduling forces otherwise avoidable resetting of cases until lawyers can be located, meet with their clients (often having to work through language and cultural barriers), and prepare their cases. While the judges in Arlington value representation over “haste makes waste” attempts to force unrepresented individuals through the system, not all Immigration Courts are like Arlington.
For example, according to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (“TRAC”), only 1% of represented juveniles and 11% of all juveniles in Arlington whose cases began in 2014, the height of the so-called “Southern Border Surge,” have received final orders of removal. By contrast, for the same group of juveniles in the Georgia Immigration Courts, 43% were ordered removed, and 52% of those were unrepresented.
Having a lawyer isn’t just important – it’s everything in Immigration Court. Generally, individuals who are represented by lawyers in their asylum cases succeed in remaining in the United States at an astounding rate of five times more than those who are unrepresented. For recently arrived women with children, the
representation differential is simply off the charts: at least fourteen times higher for those who are represented, according to TRAC. Contrary to the well-publicized recent opinion of a supervisory Immigration Judge who does not preside over an active docket, most Immigration Judges who deal face-to-face with minor children agree that such children categorically are incompetent to represent themselves. Yet, indigent individuals, even children of tender years, have no right to an appointed lawyer in Immigration Court.
To date, most removal orders on the expedited docket are “in absentia,” meaning that the women and children were not actually present in court. In Immigration Court, hearing notices usually are served by regular U.S. Mail, rather than by certified mail or personal delivery. Given heavily overcrowded dockets and chronic understaffing, errors by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) in providing addresses and mistakes by the Immigration Court in mailing these notices are common.
Consequently, claims by the Department of Justice and the DHS that women and children with removal orders being rounded up for deportation have received full due process ring hollow. Indeed a recent analysis by the American Immigration Council using the Immigration Court’s own data shows that children who are represented appear in court more than 95% of the time while those who are not represented appear approximately 33% of the time. Thus, concentrating on insuring representation for vulnerable individuals, instead of expediting their cases, would largely eliminate in absentia orders while promoting real, as opposed to cosmetic, due process. Moreover, as recently pointed out by an article in the New York Times, neither the DHS nor the Department of Justice can provide a rational explanation of why otherwise identically situated individuals have their cases “prioritized” or “deprioritized.”
Rather than working with overloaded charitable organizations and exhausted pro bono attorneys to schedule initial hearings at a reasonable pace, the Department of Justice orders that initial hearings in these cases be expedited. Then it spends countless hours and squanders taxpayer dollars in Federal Court defending its “right” to aggressively pursue removal of vulnerable unrepresented children to perhaps the most dangerous, corrupt, and lawless countries outside the Middle East: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”), the institution responsible for enforcing fairness and due process for all who come before our Immigration Courts, could issue precedent decisions to stop this legal travesty of accelerated priority scheduling for unrepresented children who need pro bono lawyers to proceed and succeed. But, it has failed to act.
The misguided prioritization of cases of recently arrived women, children, and families further compromises due process for others seeking justice in our Immigration Courts. Cases that have been awaiting final hearings for years are “orbited” to slots in the next decade. Families often are spread over several dockets, causing confusion and generating unnecessary paperwork. Unaccompanied
children whose cases should initially be processed in a non-adversarial system are instead immediately thrust into court.
Euphemistically named “residential centers” — actually jails — wear down and discourage those, particularly women and children, seeking to exercise their rights under U.S. and international law to seek refuge from death and torture. Regardless of the arcane nuances of our asylum laws, most of the recent arrivals need and deserve protection from potential death, torture, rape, or other abuse at the hands of gangs, drug cartels, and corrupt government officials resulting from the breakdown of civil society in their home countries.
Not surprisingly, these “deterrent policies” have failed. Individuals fleeing so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have continued to arrive at a steady pace, while dockets in Immigration Court, including “priority cases,” have mushroomed, reaching an astonishing 500,000 plus according to recent TRAC reports (notwithstanding efforts to hire additional Immigration Judges). As reported recently by the Washington Post, private detention companies, operating under highly questionable government contracts, appear to be the only real beneficiaries of the current policies.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We could save lives and short-circuit both the inconsistencies and expenses of the current case-by-case protection system, while allowing a “return to normalcy” for most already overcrowded Immigration Court dockets by using statutory Temporary Protected Status (known as “TPS”) for natives of the Northern Triangle countries. Indeed, more than 270 organizations with broad based expertise in immigration matters, as well as many members of Congress, have requested that the Administration institute such a program.
The casualty toll from the uncontrolled armed violence plaguing the Northern Triangle trails only those from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. TPS is a well- established humanitarian response to a country in crisis. Its recipients, after registration, are permitted to live and work here, but without any specific avenue for obtaining permanent residency or achieving citizenship. TPS has been extended among others to citizens of Syria and remains in effect for citizens of both Honduras who needed refuge from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and El Salvador who needed refuge following earthquakes in 2001. Certainly, the disruption caused by a hurricane and earthquakes more than a decade ago pales in comparison with the very real and gruesome reality of rampant violence today in the Northern Triangle.
Regardless, we desperately need due-process reforms to allow the Immigration Court system to operate more fairly, efficiently, and effectively. Here are a few suggestions: place control of dockets in the local Immigration Judges, rather than bureaucrats in Washington, as is the case with most other court systems; work cooperatively with the private sector and the Government counsel to docket cases at a rate designed to maximize representation at the initial hearings; process unaccompanied children through the non-adversarial system before rather
than after the institution of Immigration Court proceedings; end harmful and unnecessary detention of vulnerable families; settle ongoing litigation and redirect the talent and resources to developing an effective representation program for all vulnerable individuals; and make the BIA an effective appellate court that insures due process, fairness, uniformity and protection for all who come before our Immigration Courts.
Children are the future of our world. History deals harshly with societies that mistreat and fail to protect children and other vulnerable individuals. Sadly, our great country is betraying its values in its rush to “stem the tide.” It is time to demand an immigrant justice system that lives up to its vision of “guaranteeing due process and fairness for all.” Anything less is a continuing disgrace that will haunt us forever.
The children and families riding the elevator with me are willing to put their hopes and trust in the belief that they will be treated with justice, fairness, and decency by our country. The sole mission and promise of our Immigration Courts is due process for these vulnerable individuals. We are not delivering on that promise.
The author is a recently retired U.S. Immigration Judge who served at the U.S. Immigration Court in Arlington Virginia, and previously was Chairman and Member of the Board of Immigration Appeals. He also has served as Deputy General Counsel and Acting General Counsel of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, a partner at two major law firms, and an adjunct professor at two law schools. His career in the field of immigration and refugee law spans 43 years. He has been a member of the Senior Executive Service in Administrations of both parties.