By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A deluge of Central American children pouring into the United States threatens to burst the seams of already overstuffed immigration courts, and President Barack Obama’s steps to ease the crisis are likely to make matters worse rather than better for some, U.S. officials and immigration lawyers said.
“We are reaching a point of implosion, if we have not already reached it,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks of San Francisco, who has been deciding immigration cases since 1987 and is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
The problem, according to judges, lawyers and immigration groups, is the sheer number of cases clogging the courts, due in part to beefed-up law enforcement at the southwestern U.S. border with Mexico.
U.S. immigration courts have a backlog of 375,373 cases, almost 50,000 more than they faced two years ago, according to Justice Department figures.
Marks, one of the 243 judges presiding over 59 immigration courts in the United States, is setting hearing dates as far off as 2018. It now typically takes three to five years for cases to clear the system, judges and lawyers said.
On a recent Wednesday at a crowded immigration court in Arlington, Virginia, a judge was setting February 2017 asylum hearings for juveniles.
Some of the children who appear in court suffer from debilitating illnesses or are scarred from traumas experienced during the journey north, from rape and other injuries to hunger and forced labor by human smugglers.
“It’s like conducting death-penalty cases in a traffic court,” said Marks, referring to the high volume of cases and often weighty decisions judges face over whether to return children to crime-infested homelands.
The court overload is rising in part because of a flood of unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Fleeing poverty and violence, many risk the trip alone, often trying to reunite with families in the United States.
Unless the flow of migrants from Central America subsides, the U.S. government estimates about 90,000 children will arrive this year, growing to 150,000 next year.
Obama has asked Congress to fund the hiring of 75 more immigration judges and instructed the immigration courts to prioritize children’s cases.
But his two-pronged plan is unlikely to transform a court system that some experts say has been saddled with increasingly complicated immigration laws from Congress since the late 1990s, spates of spiking border apprehensions and insufficient funding.
Budget pressures have contributed to the courts’ struggles.
With Central American illegal migration accelerating in fiscal 2012, Congress allocated $302 million for the courts. The following year, funding actually fell to $289 million, although this year it has risen slightly to $312 million.
To fulfill Obama’s request of 75 more judges, the Justice Department aims to lure 15 judges out of retirement and find another 60 permanent hires from the ranks of immigration lawyers.
But about 100 judges, more than one-third of the stable, are eligible to retire this year, Juan Osuna, director of the department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review that administers the courts, told Congress. Even if only half leave, Osuna said it would hamper Obama’s efforts to expand the court.
“As the stress gets worse, it becomes a far more difficult job and people are increasingly likely to retire at their earliest opportunity rather than well into retirement (age),” Marks said.
Immigration judges have been instructed to upend their regular case dockets to concentrate mainly on unaccompanied children and women with children who are in detention.
That could be bad news for the thousands of immigrants whose cases already have languished for years.
Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, represents a client whose case illustrates both the cumbersome bureaucracy of the understaffed courts and the unintended consequences of Obama’s “children first” directive.
In 2005, Adams’ client fled Eritrea and legally entered the United States. The woman’s immigration troubles began when she applied for U.S. citizenship, hoping to help bring her husband to the United States after years of separation.
U.S. immigration officials discovered a paperwork problem with her original entry and began deportation proceedings. On her scheduled court date, the judge was out sick and a new date was set for more than a year later.
Adams said if cases of unaccompanied minors were given priority, it would likely further delay his client’s case.
‘FIND A LAWYER’
Juvenile cases are heard on Monday mornings in Baltimore, Maryland and Wednesday afternoons in Arlington, Virginia. At those times, the immigration courthouses fill with bottle-fed babies, antsy toddlers and nervous teenagers.
Judge Lisa Dornell in Baltimore encourages families to bring blankets or teddy bears to help comfort young children during the proceedings. Around 30 cases can move through Dornell’s courtroom during a Monday morning session.
Another judge told Reuters she uses humor to get kids’ attention, like flying a paper airplane to amuse a 10-year-old during a particularly tense hearing.
Arlington’s Judge John Bryant observed during one hearing that he sees illegal migrants “as young as 90 days old.”
After appearing in Bryant’s court, lawyer Cecil Harrigan told Reuters his teenaged client fled El Salvador after his brother was murdered by a gang. “A lot of these young people are running for their lives, and they’re scared,” he said.
Judge Bryant set a February 2017 asylum hearing for the boy. Until then, the teenager can attend school and have a job.
With no right to a government-appointed lawyer, some children show up for hearings aided only by a friend or relative and a court-appointed interpreter.
In those cases, Bryant gives them a list of non-governmental agencies offering free or low-cost legal services.
“Find a lawyer,” he advises.
Even with the contact list, obtaining a lawyer can be difficult and it can take up to a year to get representation, according to Simon Sandoval-Moshenburg of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, Virginia.
A new study by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse shows that in cases where children had lawyers, about half were not deported.
In cases where juveniles were unrepresented, records show only one out of 10 were allowed to stay in the United States.
On a summer afternoon in the Arlington court, at least one case was removed from the huge backlog. The government, using “prosecutorial discretion” aimed at focusing efforts on higher-priority cases, dismissed its case against a Peruvian teenager who entered illegally in 2010 to join his parents.
“I wish you an absolutely wonderful life,” Bryant told the teen.
TEXAS GOVERNOR TO SEND 1,000 NATIONAL GUARD TROOPS TO BORDER
Texas Governor Rick Perry said on Monday he planned to send 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the Mexican border to boost security during an influx of illegal immigration by children, a move that could increase pressure on President Barack Obama.
Perry, seen as a possible Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential race, said the guard troops were needed because the flood of children crossing from Mexico had pushed federal border protection to its limits.
“The price of inaction is too high for Texas to pay,” Perry told a news conference.
The governor’s announcement came just days before Obama plans to meet with the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on Friday to discuss cooperation dealing with the flow of child migrants from Central America.
Perry said the National Guard would help the state’s surveillance and deploy some of its assets, such as aircraft, to monitor the border. He give no indication the Texas National Guard would work directly with U.S. Border Patrol.
During the nine months ending June 30, more than 57,000 children were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them from Central America, and double last year’s count, according to U.S. government data.
Perry said federal resources had been diverted to take care of those children, creating a vacuum for criminal cartels to step up operations.
Perry previously called on Obama to send 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border.
Before the news conference, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters: “If this deployment does move forward, it is the kind of step that we would like to see be coordinated and integrated with the ongoing response there.”
Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston, said Perry’s plan was more about politics than security because the state’s guard troops would play supporting roles on the vast border and likely be deployed for a short period of time.
“The operational impact is limited. This forces one to think that this is a political move by Rick Perry,” he said.
The White House and lawmakers have called the influx a humanitarian crisis, and the Obama administration has requested an additional $3.7 billion from Congress to address the situation.
Senior administration officials have said the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the Rio Grande Valley in Texas has started to drop off.
The White House said in a statement on Monday that preliminary data showed the average number of daily apprehensions of unaccompanied children by the Customs and Border Patrol had dropped by about half from June to July.
In June, about 2,000 children were crossing the border on a weekly basis, one official told reporters on a conference call last week. By the second week in July, those numbers had dropped below 1,000 and were continuing in that direction, he said.
The officials have tied the drop to factors including U.S. information campaigns about the dangers of the journey for the children and clear policy statements that coming to the United States would not give the migrants a pathway to citizenship. Obama has come under fire from Republicans who say his immigration policies have encouraged the children to make the journey to the United States. They have so far balked at approving the money Obama has requested from Congress.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason in Washington and Daniel Wallis in Denver; Editing by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)