Rebeca E. Salmon
Rebeca E. Salmon (John Disney/Daily Report)

Fast-track deportation hearings for unaccompanied children caught at the Mexican border since May are curtailing their already slim chances of finding a lawyer and disrupting scheduled dockets at Atlanta Immigration Court, according to four immigration lawyers who represent juveniles before the court.

Newly arrived juvenile immigrants are being bumped to the head of the line for deportation hearings under a new federal policy in response to the surge of children fleeing Central America for the U.S.

Children with relatives or sponsors in Georgia and Alabama are sent there to await deportation hearings in front of the Atlanta court, which has jurisdiction.

The so-called “rocket dockets” for new juvenile immigration cases started around the first week of August, the lawyers said.

“It was a surprise to most of the practitioners,” said Jessica Daman, a staff attorney for the Latin American Association. “It was not something our local court let us know ahead of time.”

“They’re having these rocket dockets every week and these kids are going unrepresented because of the quick schedule,” she said.

Jennifer Bensman, an immigration lawyer at Catholic Charities of Atlanta, said it isn’t clear which judges are taking juvenile cases, when the dockets are held, or which children are on them.

Until August, one of the Atlanta court’s five judges, Madeline Garcia, heard all juvenile cases. Garcia holds a regular juvenile calendar every two weeks, said Sarah Owings, an immigration attorney at Antonini & Cohen. “Now juvenile calendars are popping up randomly in front of who knows what judge,” Owings said.

Rebecca Salmon, who represents unaccompanied children through her nonprofit Access to Law Foundation, said she found out about the fast-track dockets when a child she signed as a client in June was scheduled for an August hearing. The judge, Earle Wilson, usually doesn’t handle juvenile cases, but she said, “the courtroom was full of kids.”

In the first seven months of the year, the Office of Refugee Resettlement placed 1,412 unaccompanied children in Georgia and 515 in Alabama.

The Atlanta Immigration Court’s annual juvenile caseload has increased more than sixfold since 2011. It had 1,604 juvenile deportation cases pending as of June 30, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Owings is coordinating local immigration attorneys’ response to the new fast-track juvenile dockets because she is the liaison from the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Georgia-Alabama chapter to the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the nation’s 59 immigration courts.

Very few children without parents, who are often indigent, have a lawyer at their first deportation appearance, so they are automatically granted continuances to find one, ordinarily for 90 days, Owings said.

But unaccompanied children on the fast-track dockets are being given only 30 days or less from their first appearance until their second hearing, when they are generally required to plea to the charging documents, Owings said. That is not enough time for the overburdened nonprofit lawyers who take these cases to work them in and prepare their cases. “It takes 90 days for lawyers to even see people, because of their caseloads,” she said.

Owings said she has a “rocket docket” client with a viable claim for relief that only a lawyer with expertise in the byzantine rules of immigration law could uncover.

The 17-year-old Honduran girl crossed the border six months ago to reunite with her mother, who had left Honduras in 1998, a year after her birth, Owings said. The mother has temporary protective status in the United States, which allows her a work permit. The U.S. awards this status to nationals of a few designated countries where there’s been a natural disaster or there is ongoing armed conflict, as in Honduras and El Salvador.

Owings discovered that the mother qualifies for a U-visa because she was a violent crime victim in the U.S.—and the visa includes children. Assuming it’s granted, her client will be eligible for a green card.

“It takes a lot of digging,” Owings said. “You can’t find these things out if you just sit a kid down in front of a judge. You’ve got to know about the family.”

Only 4 percent of the children added to the Atlanta court’s caseload through June of this year have lawyers, according to TRAC. The Immigration Courts’ fiscal year runs through Sept. 31.

“These children going unrepresented may be getting removal orders or pushed to accept voluntary departure, when maybe things could be different if they had an attorney to protect them and guide them through the process,” said the Latin American Association’s Daman.

In Atlanta, Daman said, Salmon, Bensman and herself “are the pro bono-low bono bar for these kids, and we are overwhelmed.” About 75 percent of her 150 current cases are children, she said, and she’s booked until October.

Rapid scheduling

Owings said she asked the Atlanta Immigration Court’s administrator, Cynthia Long, for 90-day continuances after first appearances but was told it is up to the individual judges.

Long said she and the courts’ judges are not allowed to speak to the media and referred questions to the EOIR.

An EOIR spokesperson, Kathryn Mattingly, said in an email that the agency does not specify how long judges should allow until second hearings in juvenile deportation cases.

Judge Garcia is still giving juveniles 90-day continuances, Salmon said, but other judges are scheduling second hearings in as few as 14 days.

She said an unaccompanied child with a first appearance before Wilson on Aug. 28 called her that day seeking representation. His second hearing is Sept. 11, which gives him nine business days to find a lawyer. Salmon said three other children who have called her were given 21 days by Wilson before their second hearing.

“That is not reasonable,” Salmon said. “They are pressuring us to do our job in an unreasonable timeline.”

“I understand that most of our clients have to leave—but give them due process,” she said.

Meanwhile, Salmon said, other children who have been clients for six months or more have not yet had a court date.

“Why deport the new kids before they deport kids they’ve been working with for four years?” Salmon asked. “The only purpose I can think of is to get these kids excluded from relief.”

Owings said an attorney reported that she appeared in court for a final deportation hearing last week, only to find an unannounced “rocket docket” with 40 first appearances ahead of her. Her case, for which she’d prepared testimony, was not heard.

“It’s another frustration for attorneys that cases they’ve prepared are being shoved back for this. It’s thrown a wrench in a lot of things,” Owings said.

Catholic Charities’ Bensman said existing juvenile cases are so backlogged that the Atlanta court is scheduling appearances 15 months out. All but one of the 611 juvenile cases docketed this year through June are still pending, as are 85 percent of the 910 cases from 2013 and 43 percent of the 425 cases from 2012.

The EOIR spokesperson acknowledged that the fast-track juvenile dockets will push back hearings for older cases. “While we expedite hearings for our newly defined priority groups, cases that do not fall into this category will take longer to adjudicate,” Mattingly said.

The fast-track dockets are part of an Obama administration effort to pursue “an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers,” that President Barack Obama outlined in a June 30 letter to Congress.

Overall, there has been only a slight increase in apprehensions at the Mexican border, Obama’s letter said, but the number of children and adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has increased significantly.

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) catches unaccompanied children at the border, it turns them over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which locates a parent, relative or other sponsor to care for them during the deportation proceeding. Then DHS notifies the immigration court with jurisdiction. ???

The Office of Refugee Resettlement estimates it will place 60,000 unaccompanied immigrant children in fiscal year 2014—up from 24,668 last year and only 6,775 per year on average from 2003 to 2011.

Last year, 93 percent of the children the agency placed came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Only 3 percent of its placements were children from Mexico because DHS has the authority to screen and deport them at the border without a formal hearing.

The surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border started about 18 months ago, Catholic Charities’ Bensman said, sparked by an escalation in violence from gangs and drug traffickers in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“Kids will risk their lives to come here,” Bensman said. “We’ve never seen numbers like this before.”

Threats from gangs plus misinformation spread by coyotes, who smuggle immigrants across the border for a fee, have prompted children from those countries to flee for the United States, said the Latin American Association’s Daman.

“The coyotes tell them the United States is a place where kids can come and have protections. They don’t know they’re going to be in a deportation hearing,” Daman said.

Starting July 18, the EOIR directed immigration courts to push newly arrived children to the front of the line for deportation hearings.

Unaccompanied children apprehended since May 1 must receive an initial deportation hearing within 21 days after the court receives their name and address from DHS, said the EOIR spokesperson. Adults with children caught since May 1 must get an initial deportation hearing within 28 days.

While the number of juvenile deportation cases has shot up, they are still only 11 percent of the 375,503 backlogged cases nationally, according to TRAC data.

Safety concerns

Owings has organized a Sept. 11 meeting between the nonprofit lawyers and immigration court representatives to try to sort things out. Attending it will be the Atlanta courts’ administrator, Long; the jurisdiction’s assistant chief immigration judge, Elisa Sukkar; and a member of the EOIR general counsel’s office.

“We want to make sure childrens’ rights are not completely trampled during this process,” Owings said.

Salmon raised concerns about children’s safety. During six fast-track juvenile dockets in August before Wilson, Salmon said she observed him ask children who didn’t have lawyers for personal information in open court.

“They were children—minors—alone, scared to death. The judge made them give their complete name, date of birth, address and phone number in open court—and then plead to the charging document,” she said.

Garcia is attuned to privacy and safety concerns for juveniles because she has training and experience with these cases, Salmon said.

The EOIR spokesperson, Mattingly, said in an email that “all immigration judges are able to handle juvenile cases,” and that the immigration judges “take into consideration the special vulnerabilities and needs of children.”

At the meeting, the immigration lawyers will ask for 90-day continuances from a first appearance and advance notice of the fast-track dockets, Owings said. They also will ask to have volunteer lawyers attend the dockets as friends of the court to assist unrepresented children.

Another concern, she said, is making sure children are properly notified of their first court appearance. Those who miss a first appearance can be deported. Respondents must be notified 10 days in advance, Owings said, but the notices are sent by U.S. mail, with no certification. Even if they arrive on time, she said, children may not receive them, because they frequently relocate after their initial placement, finding shelter with a different relative.

More lawyers are needed for the juvenile cases Daman said. The Latin American Association, Catholic Charities and other nonprofits are seeking grant funding for more lawyers and asking Atlanta law firms if their lawyers can take pro bono cases.

Such an effort is already underway in Miami, according to the Daily Report’s sister publication, the Daily Business Review.

Dade Legal Aid and the Dade County Bar Association held a training session in Miami for volunteer lawyers to represent unaccompanied children that was hosted by Greenberg Traurig and Cozen O’Connor. The Miami offices of Shutts & Bowen and Jones Day have started pro bono efforts to assist unaccompanied children.