By Dianne Solis and David Tarrant, The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — In a packed Dallas immigration courtroom, Elsy Garcia sits next to her 16-year-old brother, Jose. She last saw him when he was 9, when she fled their home in Usulutan in southern El Salvador.
Now Jose is facing deportation. His case is confusing. His sister, a 28-year-old mother of three U.S.-born children, is now his guardian. She fears she will fail him. They have no attorney.
Yet Judge Michael Baird tells her she’s not named as her brother’s legal custodian. Someone she doesn’t know is listed on the document. “You did the right thing coming back with him today,” Judge Baird finally says.
Many like Jose came on their own or paid a smuggler. Their journeys often involved dashes through gang-controlled Honduran neighborhoods, cramped bus rides along Mexican roads, or a trip of terror atop a cargo train. Now, after being apprehended, these young people have ended up in court to face their biggest test — one that can determine whether they stay in the United States.
What happens in Baird’s courtroom lies at the heart of a heated debate over how the U.S. government should handle the recent surge of juvenile migrants.
The latest order from President Barack Obama’s administration: Prioritize and speed up hearings on removal of these unaccompanied minors, whose apprehensions total 57,000 so far this fiscal year.
Immigration courts have a record backlog of 375,500 cases — both juveniles and adults from all countries, said Juan Osuna, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the U.S. Department of Justice. The numbers have doubled since 2008.
“We are facing the largest caseload that the (EOIR) has ever seen,” said Osuna, testifying on Capitol Hill two weeks ago.
Texas immigration courts are among the nation’s busiest. Since 2005, Texas judges have presided over a quarter of the nation’s deportation cases involving juveniles, according to data analyzed by the Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a national research center.
Texas immigration courts are also among the nation’s toughest. In Texas, two-thirds of immigrants, including adults and juveniles, are ordered deported, according to TRAC. The national average is about 50 percent; in California, it’s almost 39 percent.
To deal with the current crisis of juvenile migrants, the Obama administration asked Congress for $3.7 billion, including funding to add 40 more judges for the nation’s 59 immigration courts.
But a prominent federal judge warned it would be a mistake to rush minors through immigration court. “Those are the cases that take longer,” said Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
“You have to be more solicitous of the person and allow the person to find an attorney. They are particularly vulnerable individuals,” Marks said. “You have to spend more time to make sure they understand the procedures and the rights. How do you do that with frightened children?”
Located on an upper floor of a downtown federal building, Baird’s windowless, fluorescent-lit courtroom is tucked into a corner of a hallway crowded with immigrants from some of the most dangerous places in the world.
The courtroom is a tidy place: beige walls, dark blue carpeting, and a raised desk where the black-robed judge sits in a tall leather chair. Behind Baird are an American flag and the bronze seal of the Justice Department, whose motto, Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur, is Latin for “Who Pursues for Lady Justice.”
About once a week, the judge presides over the juvenile immigration docket in Dallas. “All of you are here today because the government wants to remove you from the country,” he tells the juveniles one recent morning.
He reads them their rights. It is a short conversation. You can have legal representation if you want, the judge tells them, but you don’t have the right to a free lawyer. An interpreter with a booming voice repeats the message in rapid-fire, confident Spanish.
The children in the Dallas courtroom are all classified as unaccompanied minors — meaning they arrived without a parent. Typically, unaccompanied minors are trying to reunite with a relative already living in the United States.
Deportation hearings involving minors can take several years because of the backlog. But the Obama administration now wants such cases moved to the top of court dockets. In the recent past, the Justice Department focused on speeding up the removal of those with criminal records.
Legislation introduced last week by two Texas lawmakers, Sen. John Cornyn, the deputy GOP leader, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, would make it possible to deport Central American immigrant children within days of their apprehension.
Unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada are not subject to expedited removal from the country now. Expedited removal means that someone who is in the United States illegally can be quickly deported without any court appearance or judicial review.
The unaccompanied minors in the Dallas courtroom are all from Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras — where violence, poverty and false beliefs that U.S. authorities treat minors leniently have fueled the crisis at the border.
Across the nation’s immigration courts, children show up without lawyers more than half the time, according to a recent report by TRAC, which looked at 100,000 juvenile cases since 2005. This makes a huge difference.
In about half of the cases in which juveniles have an attorney, the court has allowed them to stay in the United States, according to the data. In cases in which juveniles did not have a lawyer, 9 out of 10 were ordered deported.
In Baird’s courtroom, Jose Garcia’s hearing ends with the court giving him and his sister time to find a lawyer. But Elsy wonders how much she can do.
Like so many male teens who end up on the juvenile docket, Jose is fleeing gangs, his sister says later. La Mara Salvatrucha, a gang with roots in Los Angeles’ immigrant neighborhoods, made it clear it wanted her brother. Their mother decided to place Jose with a smuggler who took him north to Dallas.
But if he files an asylum claim, he could face difficulties. Immigrants are eligible for asylum if they can prove fear of persecution on one or more of five grounds: race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
Especially hard to prove is social group persecution — such as teenagers targeted for gang recruitment.
“U.S. law makes a distinction on those who have humanitarian claims,” said Marc Rosenblum, an immigration specialist at the Migration Policy Institute. “Even if a gang member is going into your house and saying, ‘I am going to kill you if you don’t do X, Y, and Z,’ that won’t make you eligible necessarily for asylum relief.”
Jose arrived in Texas last year and started high school in the Dallas area. Elsy said she knows the odds for her brother aren’t good. Without an attorney, Jose stands little chance of staying in Texas. “They say it is really difficult and you have to have evidence,” Elsy said.
She doesn’t want to fail her mother. “The situation (in El Salvador) is so difficult,” she said in Spanish. “Imagine kids only 12 smoking drugs and getting in gangs. The mothers send their kids here because they fear for the lives of their sons.
“If you don’t join, they’ll kill you.”
Photo: Dallas Morning News/MCT/Rex C. Curry
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