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NYC’s Immigration Court Erodes Accommodations for Children Without Attorneys

Adi Talwar

Visitors enter 26 Federal Plaza, the building many immigration hearings take place.

After her father abandoned the family and her mother traveled to the U.S. to earn money for her children, Maria struggled. At home in Honduras, gang members tried to coerce her into becoming the “girlfriend” of one their members.

So three years ago, Maria fled with her younger brother. The children traveled north through Texas until they reached New York where they reunited with their mother. At 14, Maria — whose name has been changed for this story to protect her identity — joined tens of thousands of other children escaping violence and danger in their native countries.

Once inside the U.S., Maria encountered a new challenge: how to persuade immigration court to let her stay in the country without a lawyer defending her. The first time she went to the courthouse, she faced the judge and government attorney with only a court-appointed translator at her side.

The experience terrified her.

“They explained a little to me, but they didn’t help with my fear,” Maria says. “I didn’t feel that they would help much and without a lawyer we were so alone. We didn’t have anyone to guide us.”

Maria’s mother eventually helped her connect with the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit organization that took on her case and helped her get on track for a visa. She is now on the verge of graduating from high school and she says she plans to pursue a career as a police officer.

“When I got my lawyer, I felt protected,” Maria says. “But that first time I didn’t know what to do.”

Thousands of other undocumented immigrant children never get a lawyer and continue to experience that fear and uncertainty during deportation proceedings. Others choose to avoid court, exposing themselves to in-absentia removal orders.

Over the past few months, finding legal representation has become even more challenging for immigrant children in New York City because Manhattan’s federal immigration court has eroded several of the practices and provisions designed to help children connect with nonprofit and pro bono attorneys inside the courthouse, say four lawyers who direct programs that connect with unrepresented children at 26 Federal Plaza.

Legal Aid Society’s Immigrant Youth Project supervising attorney Beth Krause says the changes have led to fewer children getting legal representation and will likely doom more children to deportation — even if their situations or experiences merit asylum, protected status or visa eligibility.

“What this means is there are many, many children who are not getting consultation with a lawyer and many kids who do have relief available but, if they don’t talk to a lawyer, might not know it and give up,” Krause says.

Though children have no legal right to government-funded counsel in immigration court — a reality reaffirmed by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in late-January — New York City’s court used to provide some accommodations to help children find attorneys. The court consolidated the juvenile docket on specific days and assigned the cases to specific judges with experience presiding over children’s proceedings.

The court also shared docket information with nonprofits like New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project, Catholic Charities, Legal Aid, The Door and other Immigrant Child Advocates Relief Effort (ICARE) participants and permitted the organizations to meet with children in empty courtrooms or other spaces.

These provisions enabled children to access free legal counsel because the organizations knew how many unrepresented children would appear at court and when their case would be called. The accommodations also facilitated more efficient courtrooms — especially on days when a judge’s docket includes dozens of cases — because lawyers could prepare their young clients for court and guide them through proceedings.

Gradually, however, the court has scattered children’s proceedings throughout the month and assigned the cases to various judges who are at times unfamiliar with child-friendly practices or special legal provisions granted to children, such as longer filing deadlines, say Krause, Safe Passage Project Director Lenni Benson, Catholic Charities Supervising Attorney Jodi Ziesemer and The Door’s Director of Legal Services Eve Stotland.

The court has even prevented the nonprofit organizations from screening children inside empty courtrooms or other spaces throughout the building, the four attorneys say.

Debate about dockets

In an emailed statement, Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) spokesman John Martin told City Limits that the “New York City Immigration Court continues to assign cases involving juveniles, including unaccompanied alien children, on a separate docket the last week of each month, as needed.”

In a follow up statement, Martin told City Limits that EOIR records indicate “that during the weeks of Dec. 19, 2017, and Jan. 22, 2018, there were approximately 350 juvenile cases assigned to the New York City Immigration Court in each of these weeks.”

Martin also pointed to a memo issued by the Department of Justice in December 2017 instructing courts to “conduct cases involving juvenile respondents, particularly unaccompanied children, on a separate docket or on a fixed time in the week or month.”

“If the number of cases does not warrant a separate docket, courts should attempt to schedule children’s cases at a specific time on the regular docket but separate and apart from adult cases,” the memo continues.