Three times a month in juvenile immigration court in Dallas, the drama that begins with unaccompanied children on the border reaches another act.
That's when immigration Judge Michael Baird firmly tells the children sitting before him: The government of the United States wants to remove you from this country.
A court interpreter translates the message into Spanish for the children, who are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Most of the kids stare ahead blankly, seemingly unaware of what's happening to them.
Every child apprehended at the border receives a Notice to Appear in immigration court, which the child must sign and acknowledge with their own fingerprint. That notice sets a court date that begins the process of what will happen next.
It usually means deportation.
At their first court appearance, usually a few months to a year after they've been apprehended, most of the children don't have lawyers. The judge typically postpones their case and gives them time to find an attorney.
Some children through family members in the United States find the money to pay for an attorney. Some end up with lawyers who represent them for free, through Catholic Charities of Dallas, the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas or the Dallas Hispanic Bar.
Other children never get a lawyer.
U.S. immigration law is so complex that many lawyers and judges have trouble navigating it.
Oscar Gonzalez, a Dallas attorney who spent three years helping a young woman from El Salvador deal with the system from 2006 to 2009, describes it as so circuitous and complex as to be almost impenetrable.
We bounced around family court, we bounced around county court, we bounced around immigration court, he said, before his client finally received a green card.
A child might be allowed to stay in the country under five different categories:
- Special immigrant juvenile status, which may apply to children who were abused or neglected in their own country
- Political asylum, in which a child was persecuted for race, religion, social group or political opinion
- U visa status, for victims of violent crime in the U.S. who may have helped law enforcement
- T visa status for children who are victims of human trafficking
- Family visa status, for some children who may have relatives in the U.S. who are legal residents
Catholic Charities of Dallas, which provides immigration and legal services as part of its mission, says 60 percent of unaccompanied children are deported; the remainder stay in the U.S.
Children who don't have their first hearing before their 18th birthday are treated in adult immigration court.
The complexity of the legal system compounds a problem that has been growing for years, attorneys say.
Immigration courts in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio handle the bulk of cases in Texas. So many children are now entering the system from the border that it may be years until they get their first day in court in some jurisdictions across the country.
Last month, the Department of Justice began a process to train lawyers in the process of representing clients in juvenile immigration court, but the task is daunting.
I cannot imagine who is going to be representing all the children who are now at the border, Oscar Martinez said. It's almost impossible. It boggles the mind.
There have been nearly 60,000 children who've made their way into the United States since October, and each one of them is legally entitled to a hearing.
KHOUreports there are 234 immigration judges in the U.S., and they're spread around the entire country.
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