Responding to a flood of unaccompanied minors crossing the border in the last year, Miami’s immigration court has instituted a “rocket docket,” assigning three judges to exclusively handle cases involving the youths and decide up to 150 cases a day.
At a meeting last week, the three judges—Charles Sanders, J. Daniel Dowell and Michael C. Horn—appealed to local immigrant advocacy groups such as Americans for Immigrant Justice, Catholic Legal Services and the Cuban American Bar Association for pro bono help for the children. They said they would be rushing 150 kids a day through the immigration process.
Previously, two of Miami’s 18 immigration judges handled cases involving children about four times a month, on an ad hoc basis, according to Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice.
Miami is one of 39 immigration courts to have specialized juvenile dockets, according to Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Rocket dockets—special subcourts set up to fast-track cases and assign judges to exclusively handle them—have been instituted in various counties to handle foreclosure cases, but this is the first time they’ve been used in immigration court, say experts. Miami’s immigration rocket docket requires initial hearings to be held within 21 days of a case filing by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The rocket dockets were started after the Obama administration last month began fast-tracking cases involving unaccompanied minors who enter the United States through border states such as Texas and California, as well as to increase penalties for illegal entry. Many of those children are sent to Florida, which has detention facilities for youths.
Previously, unaccompanied minors caught by Border Patrol agents were required to be handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which had to find them safe housing and advise them on their legal rights prior to a deportation hearing. In July, President Barack Obama asked Congress to amend the law so such cases could be fast-tracked through the courts and children deported quickly.
“We are expediting hearings for our newly defined priority groups to work toward fast and fair adjudication of the cases before the agency, providing shorter wait times for a hearing before an immigration judge,” Mattingly said in a statement.
The U.S. government says 57,000 unaccompanied children have poured into the country in the last year, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, fleeing drug and gang violence as well as human trafficking. Miami has two facilities to house the children and is opening a new, 50-bed facility at an undisclosed location this week, Little said.
Groups like AIJ as well as the National Association of Immigration Judges have been lobbying Congress to abandon the rocket-docket approach, saying due process cannot occur under such time constraints. They’ve sent a letter to Congress requesting funding to hire more immigration judges.
Because lawyers cannot be found in time to represent the children—most need interpreters and sending them back to their home countries can be dangerous or fatal—more time should be given to the judges to process the cases, stated the judges association in a letter to Congress.
“Judges need the ability to tailor the time frames of various aspects of the proceedings to the emotion, physical and psychological state of the individual in court,” states the letter. “With the proper allocation of resources to allow the hiring of sufficient immigration judges and support staff to assist them, we would be able to schedule all hearings within appropriate time frames.”
On July 9, a coalition of advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a nationwide class action lawsuit in federal court in Seattle, seeking to require the government to provide all illegal unaccompanied minors with lawyers.
“Kids are going through removal hearings without lawyers in many parts of the country,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “This is contrary to our law, contrary to our Constitution and contrary to our moral values. You can’t expect an 11-year-old kid who doesn’t speak English to adequately explain to a judge why he is here, to go up against an experienced prosecutor and to engineer around our whole legal system. That is absurd. And speeding the process up is only going to make things worse.”
Little is preparing to send a letter to all Miami law firms seeking pro bono attorneys to assign to each child. Her group has a lawyer and paralegal staffing one of the judges every day, but not all three. AIJ helped more than 1,600 unaccompanied minors last year and 1,400 so far this year. The youngest was 9 months old.
“If children don’t have attorneys, there’s a good chance they will be deported,” Little said. “I’m very disappointed that President Obama would do this. He was a constitutional law professor for God’s sake, and he knows what due process is. This is shameful of him.”
Catholic Legal Services is also asking for attorneys, paralegals and law students—particularly Spanish speakers—to help on a pro bono basis. The group has offered to serve as a “friend of the court” to the children, representing their needs when lawyers can’t be found.