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By Dianne Solis, The Dallas Morning News

Lawyers call them “rocket dockets” — court schedules that speed deportation hearings for Central American children who crossed the U.S. border without a parent.

Some question whether the children are getting proper legal representation as immigration judges work their way through the fast-paced dockets. Leaders of the National Association of Immigration Judges said it is a mistake to move up cases of vulnerable children in an already backlogged system.

“We deal with cases that are often, in effect, death penalty cases,” said Dana Leigh Marks, union president and a San Francisco-based judge. “Immigration law enforcement must stand on its own and not be allowed to overshadow or to control the immigration judicial process.”

The Obama administration issued the fast-track order in July to discourage Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan families from sending children north.

Now, family dramas unreel at a furious pace before Judge Michael Baird, who hears the juvenile cases in a starkly lit courtroom in the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas. Children sit on their guardians’ laps. Attorneys crowd the center aisle. Mothers wipe tears as they tell the judge of deportation fears for their sons and daughters.

On a recent day, attorney Bill Holston surveyed the scene and then did quick client-lawyer prep work. He gave a fist bump to 11-year-old Jordan, a skinny Honduran boy who wore a gray-and-black shirt with a fierce-looking eagle. Within minutes, the two took their turn before Baird.

The mother, a pregnant housekeeper, came to the initial hearing three days earlier and was given time to look for an attorney. She found Holston, the executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a pro bono agency with a track record of victories.

Baird granted Holston more time to prepare. “You are well aware these cases are moving at a very brisk pace,” the judge told them. Baird said he has orders to follow from the government.

At least Jordan has a lawyer. Many children do not. Some families can’t find a lawyer who can quickly return to court with them. Some can’t afford the thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Others turn to agencies that do pro bono work, but those lawyers struggle with the load.

Without an attorney, deportation is a 90 percent certainty, according to a Syracuse University research center called the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The Human Rights Initiative now passes out guidelines to immigrants on how to represent themselves. The director of legal and immigration services at Catholic Charities of Dallas says it performs legal triage, picking cases most likely to win.

The Dallas chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women started a court-watching program. Their concern: “full and fair hearings for the kids,” said attorney Cheryl Pollman, the group leader.

More than 63,000 children have been apprehended this fiscal year crossing the border without parents. Many were sent on the dangerous journey by their families, who hope they will find refuge from the poverty and gang violence of their home countries. Some come looking for their parents or other family already in the United States.

The number of apprehensions this year is already eight times that in 2008. But the flow is slowing: In July, about 5,500 children were picked up, compared with 10,000 in June.

Now the children are going through the nation’s immigration courts, where there is a backlog of about 375,000 cases of adults and juveniles from around the world. Juvenile cases make up about a tenth of that backlog.

In Dallas, the five immigration judges, who serve North Texas and the entire state of Oklahoma, have a backlog of about 5,200 adult and juvenile cases, according to TRAC.

“These children are coming off a traumatic journey,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of Raices, a San Antonio pro bono law firm that represents juveniles. “It takes time for a person to decompress and be able to process through these experiences. … You want to cram them through a legal process, a legal gantlet in which they have no representation? The due process is essentially gutted.”

Marks, president of the immigration judges association, warned that children need more time, particularly when there’s trauma involved. “There is only so far you can go without compromising fairness,” she said.

She noted that judges face disciplinary action if they refuse to speed ahead. “A truly independent court needs separation from the executive branch’s enforcement prerogatives,” she said.

During a July hearing on Capitol Hill, Juan Osuna, head of the Justice Department agency that runs the immigration courts, responded to criticism.

“The utmost priority for every case … will remain — that every fact is considered and that every application of law is correct and that people appearing before our immigration judges receive due process of law,” Osuna said. “We will do these cases quickly, but we will do them right.”

In Dallas, Baird’s courtroom staff schedules five to six rocket dockets a week, up from one a month last year.

Baird, a former assistant district attorney in Georgia, has a laser focus on the bench, and his “yes” rate is restrained. Over five years, he denied asylum petitions about 60 percent of the time, according to government records obtained by TRAC. The national average is about 50 percent.

On a recent day, Brian, a 5-year-old Honduran, smiled through the gravity of his initial hearing. He slipped into a big black leather chair to face the judge. His legs didn’t touch the ground, but the loose laces of his sneaker did.

He playfully poked his 8-year-old sister, Evelyn, during the hearing. His 26-year-old mother was given a continuance to hunt for an attorney.

That same day, Holston, the seasoned attorney, showed up with Jordan and waited his turn with his battered leather briefcase. After watching several other hearings and then getting his own continuance, Holston walked out red-faced, angered by what he’d witnessed.

Baird is in a “very difficult position,” Holston said, but “this rocket docket is so upsetting. … They speed the process so lawyers can’t do their jobs.

“It is an ugly thing to watch.”

AFP Photo/Stan Honda

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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, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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