The Miami legal community is stepping up to represent unaccompanied minors in immigration court now that the Obama administration has instituted fast-track dockets.
Lawyers and law firms are attending training sessions, volunteering their time and setting up their own training sessions in response to the crisis.
Additionally, St. Thomas University School of Law’s Human Rights Institute has dedicated three staff attorneys to staff courtrooms as friends of the court appearing before the three immigration judges handling 50 juvenile cases a day.
The crisis began last month when the Obama administration began increasing penalties for illegal entry and speeding up the cases of unaccompanied minors who entered the United States through border states. Many of those children are being sent to Florida, which has three detention facilities for them.
Under the new policy, initial hearings must be held within 21 days of a case filing by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In response, Miami was one of 39 immigration courts nationwide to adopt “rocket dockets.” Judges Charles Sanders, J. Daniel Dowell and Michael C. Horn joined Americans for Immigrant Justice and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami in calling for Miami attorneys to volunteer to represent the children.
The St. Thomas institute began staffing the courtrooms Monday. The attorneys cannot represent the children but serve as friends of the court, requesting continuances and filing necessary paperwork.
“It’s challenging because you have to do it on the fly as we don’t have access to the kids before or after,” said Christine Reis, director of the Human Rights Institute. “We try to do the best job we can under the circumstances.”
Dade Legal Aid and the Dade County Bar Association held a training session for lawyers interested in volunteering Monday night at Greenberg Traurig’s office, and 39 attorneys attended.
Karen Josefsberg Ladis, executive director of Dade Legal Aid, said she was pleased but not surprised with the response.
“We decided to jump on this as Legal Aid does whenever there is a crisis,” she said. “When you say there are children who need help, this community pulls together. It doesn’t matter where they are from.”
The training program was sponsored jointly by Greenberg Traurig and Cozen O’Connor. Greenberg offered the space and set up the speakers’ panel while Cozen sponsored the dinner.
One of the attendees was Maxine Long, who heads Shutts & Bowen’s pro bono program in Miami.
Long said she got emails from the Dade County Bar Association and the Cuban American Bar Association seeking pro bono attorneys to represent the unaccompanied minors and decided “helping children seemed like a worthwhile cause for lawyers at Shutts & Bowen to get involved in.”
The training was helpful, she said.
“I’m a business litigator and don’t do immigration,” she said. “This was reassuring for someone who doesn’t do immigration that this is something I could handle and not feel lost at. Everything was explained very carefully.”
Already, Shutts & Bowen associate Ana Romes has stepped up and is appearing for 5- and 7-year-old siblings in immigration court.
Shutts & Bowen plans to host its own training session with CABA soon, Long said.
Jones Day is also heeding the call and has started a firmwide pro bono effort to assist unaccompanied minors.
Pedro Jimenez, managing partner of the Miami office, said the firm discussed how it could best help the children and decided to assist them in court on a voluntary basis.
“The question was raised, how can we help, should we donate money or what,” Jimenez said. “I felt we should donate resources and figure out a way for kids to stay in this country.
“I’m proud that we are taking a driver’s seat on this issue,” he added.
Duane Morris also has a program to help unaccompanied minors in immigration court. That firm’s program was launched a year ago and not in response to the current crisis.
Duane Morris is working through state juvenile courts to get children special immigrant juvenile status and has worked on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals cases. So far, the firm has represented eight children in Miami, said Felice Schonfeld, special counsel at Duane Morris.