6:00pm

Tue July 1, 2014
Code Switch

Influx Of Children Creates New Strain On Beleaguered Immigration Courts

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 10:55 pm

President Obama said over the weekend that he is seeking to fast-track deportations of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America who cross into the United States.

More than 52,000 have been caught in South Texas since October, and hundreds more arrive daily, overwhelming Border Patrol stations and overflowing temporary shelters.

But once they get here, what happens? Do they just get to stay, as the president's critics charge?

The answer is complicated, as minors quickly end up in in an overburdened legal system where cases often take 18 months or more to resolve.

'I Won't Be Away From My Sons Anymore'

Carmen, 43, a formidable woman wearing a stained apron, is standing amid the delicious aromas of Salvadoran soul food like fried plantains, chicken and fish tacos in her restaurant in suburban Dallas. NPR is not using her last name because she's not in the country legally.

In the next room are her sons, Gerson, 14, and Darwin, 17. Carmen says she paid a coyote $10,000 to bring them up from Morazan province and across the border at McAllen, Texas. When they arrived in March, she had not seen the boys for eight years.

Carmen says word got around in her home village that she runs a restaurant in Texas. Extortionists told her sons to call their mother and tell her that if she didn't send the gangsters $1,500, they would execute her boys.

And so Gerson and Darwin became part of the great exodus of teenagers fleeing Central America, which, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, has some of the highest murder rates on earth.

But now that her children are here, what happens if they don't get residency in the U.S.?

"Well, only God knows what we'll do," Carmen says. "We can't live down there anymore. And I won't be away from my sons anymore."

Carmen's immigration attorney, Paul Zoltan, says that, because their birth father abandoned the family, there's a good chance Gerson and Darwin can get residency through what's called Special Immigrant Juveniles Status.

But Zoltan says that even if the immigration judge orders them to be deported, "my hunch is that the very conditions that caused them to abandon their homes are bad enough that they're not likely to leave."

If the past is any guide, federal records show that most nondetained immigrant children ignore removal orders and are rarely re-apprehended and deported, says Jessica Vaughan, a former State Department employee and director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration laws.

"We know from the past that unaccompanied kids have a poor record of appearing for their immigration hearings. And so they simply disappear into American communities and join the rest of the illegal population," Vaughan says.

A Legal System Strained To The Limit

According to data from Syracuse University, as of March, there were nearly 370,000 total cases creeping through U.S. immigration courts. Each one takes more than a year and a half to resolve, and some take much longer.

Down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, agents are continuing to apprehend about 800 non-Mexican immigrants a day. The great majority of them will be fed into that beleaguered court system.

That leads Kathleen Walker, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, to be rather pessimistic.

"You have an overburdened system faced with an additional influx of very urgent cases, especially those involving unaccompanied minors, of course. And so it's just going to be worse than it ever has been," Walker says.

NPR interviews with 18 immigrant children and their families in recent weeks confirm that the word on the street in San Salvador, El Salvador, Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is that U.S. authorities, in effect, catch and release immigrant kids traveling solo.

Minors are put into deportation proceedings and given a "Notice to Appear" in immigration court, but they have permission to stay while the United States decides what to do with them.

Zoltan, who represents 45 Central American clients, says some immigrants have the mistaken impression that their deportation papers are a sort of "permiso," or permission, to be in the U.S.

"From a functional standpoint, what they find is that when they have it with them, they're not rearrested," Zoltan says.

Meanwhile, Gerson and Darwin are attending summer school in Dallas in the mornings and helping Carmen in her pupuseria in the afternoons as they await their day in court.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And Robert Siegel. President Obama said over the weekend that he's seeking to fast-track deportations of immigrant children from Central America. More than 52,000 have been detained since October in South Texas, hundreds more arrive daily. Border Patrol stations have been overwhelmed. The children are crossing without their parents and not all of them speak Spanish. In a few minutes, we'll hear how that language barrier is complicating things further, but first, how the U.S. is managing this influx of child immigrants.

NPR's John Burnett examines what happens to many of them once they're put into an overburdened system.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Walk into this restaurant in suburban Dallas and you'll be assaulted with the delicious aromas of Salvadoran soul food - fried plantains, chicken and fish tacos, sweet corn tamales, and pupusas - a sort-of pork-stuffed tortilla.

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: That's Carmen, the 43-year-old proprietor, a formidable woman wearing a stained apron. We're not using her last name because she's not in the country legally. In the next room watching the World Cup are her sons, 14-year-old Gerson and 17-year-old Darwin. Carmen says she paid a coyote $10,000 to bring them up from Morazan Province in El Salvador and cross them at McAllen, Texas. When her children arrived in March, she had not seen them for eight years.

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Carmen says word got around in her home village that she runs a restaurant in Texas. Extortionists told her sons to call their mother and tell her, either send the gangsters $1,500 or they'll execute her boys.

And so Gerson and Darwin became part of the great exodus of teenagers fleeing Central America, which according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, has some of the highest murder rates on earth. And what happens now that her children are here if they don't get residency in the U.S.?

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Well, only God knows what we'll do, Carmen says. We can't live down there anymore, and I won't be away from my sons anymore.

Her immigration lawyer, Paul Zoltan, says there's a good chance Gerson and Darwin can get residency through what's called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status because their birth father abandoned the family. But Zoltan says even if the immigration judge orders them deported...

PAUL ZOLTAN: My hunch is that the very conditions that caused them to abandon their homes are bad enough that they're not likely to leave.

BURNETT: If the past is any guide, federal records show that most non-detained immigrant children ignore removal orders and are rarely re-apprehended and deported, says Jessica Vaughan. She's a former State Department employee and director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration laws.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: We know from the past that unaccompanied kids have a poor record of appearing for their immigration hearings, and so they simply disappear into American communities and join the rest of the illegal population.

BURNETT: According to data from Syracuse University, as of March, there were nearly 370,000 total cases creeping through U.S. immigration courts. Each one takes more than a year and a half to resolve and some much longer, which leads Kathleen Walker, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, to be rather pessimistic.

KATHLEEN WALKER: So you have an overburdened system faced with an additional influx of very urgent cases, especially those involving unaccompanied minors, of course. And so it's just going to be worse than it ever has been.

BURNETT: Interviews with 18 immigrant children and their families in recent weeks confirm that the word on the street in San Salvador and Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa is that U.S. authorities effectively catch and release immigrant kids traveling solo. Minors are put into deportation proceedings and given a notice to appear in immigration court, but they have permission to stay here while the United States decides what to do with them. Paul Zoltan, who represents 45 Central American clients, says some immigrants have the mistaken impression that their deportation papers are a sort of permiso, or permission, to be in the U.S.

ZOLTAN: From a functional standpoint, what they find is that when they have it with them, they're not re-arrested.

BURNETT: Meanwhile, Gerson and Darwin are attending summer school in Dallas in the mornings and helping their mother in her cafe in the afternoons as they await their day in court.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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