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By Dianne Solis, The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Two federal immigration court judges criticized the fast-track deportation hearings for unaccompanied minors Wednesday and called for the courts to be made independent from the Justice Department.

The judges, leaders in the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the recent surge of immigrant children from Central America cast a spotlight on the problems of the nation’s immigration courts in 59 locations, including Dallas.

Dana Leigh Marks, union president and a San Francisco-based judge, said children need special protection and time because of their vulnerability and to gain their trust so the children can tell their stories. “The association has come out and said it is a mistake to bring these cases to the front of the docket,” Marks said in a televised news conference from Washington, D.C.

Denise Noonan Slavin, a union vice-president and a Miami-based judge, took issue, too, with the order to hasten deportation hearings for the recent arrivals from Central America. Slavin and Marks said the courts role should be as neutral arbitrators with a separation from the prosecutors, which they labeled an “alternate legal universe” with “curiouser and curiouser” challenges, in a literary reference.

“There is no other court that would turn the docket on its head at the request of one party,” Slavin said. “But the immigration is flipping the docket by moving cases of newly arrived children to the front of the docket at the demand of the Department of Homeland Security. In some cases it may make sense to hear the cases early, certainly not in all of them.

“…This is not an amusement park where you can fast-pass” proceedings, Slavin said.

The judges said the courts were under-resourced causing inefficiencies because of a lack of staff, including judges, and raising other basic questions such as whether notices to appear in court are sent to correct addresses.

The agency overseeing the courts — the Executive Office of Immigration Review — has a budget that is 1.7 percent of the $18 billion spent annually on immigration law enforcement, Marks said.

The Dallas immigration courts were one of the first in the nation to start the fast-track hearings for unaccompanied children. Many of the families show up to court without attorneys — and so are more likely to be deported, according to an analysis by the Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

A year ago, Dallas dockets for such juveniles were held about once a month. In recent weeks, there have been six to seven dockets weekly for the juveniles. Now, the Dallas courts also feature dockets for family units — usually women from Central America who came with their children.

Lawyers call them “rocket dockets” and “mommy dockets.”

Just this week in a Dallas courtroom, a Honduran woman tried to focus on her deportation proceeding while her hyperactive toddler boy ran up to the interpreter’s podium to play and then tried to squeeze into an opening near the judge’s podium. Another toddler girl in a coral lace dress stood watching from the pews squealing “nino, nino, nino.”

Soon the little boy ran to his mother and began crying. Dallas Judge Robert Kimball told the woman to “take him outside and try to calm him.”

When the hearing picked up again, the judge asked the Honduran mother if she had a reason not to go back to Honduras. As her child again wailed in her arms and she tried bouncing him gently, she told the judge no to the crucial question.

She had no attorney. She was ordered deported. She said she would appeal.

In recent weeks, two lawsuits have been filed against the U.S. government on due process grounds. One suit, filed in Seattle, challenges the government on the lack of government-paid attorneys for the indigent children. Attorneys there are asking the suit be given class-action status.

The second suit, filed in Washington, D.C., accuses the U.S. government of running a “deportation mill” in its court system in Artesia, N.M. Hearings for hundreds of detained immigrant mothers with children have been held there.

In defense of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service, a huge unit of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said, “The inter-agency response to this unprecedented surge has been both humane and lawful. As a matter of policy, we do not specifically comment on pending litigation.”

This fiscal year through July, about 63,000 unaccompanied minors traveling without a parent have been apprehended at the U.S. border. A similar amount — about 63,000 — have come in what U.S. law enforcement calls “family units,” usually children traveling with a parent.

AFP Photo/Stan Honda

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Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoon.