One year after the surge began of illegal migrant children across the southern U.S. border, courts are buckling under the load of deportation cases, while immigration rights activists are sounding the alarm that many children can't get fair hearings because they are without legal representation.
According to data obtained by Politico
, courts convened over 800 hearings per week between July and October. More than half the 11,392 cases on the calendar during that time were given continuances because children had no legal counsel, adding to the backlog for courts in the coming months and increasing the burden on the limited network of nonprofits and pro bono attorneys working on the cases.
"We are totally under stress… We are at the point of implosion," Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told Politico.
Marks added that the Obama administration's demand for the court system to prioritize deportation cases is displacing other types of cases.
"People whose cases have been pending with the courts for long periods of time are suffering because they can't get the hearings they feel they've waited for. While these [child migrant] cases, which may not end up being able to be brought to a conclusion any faster, are being brought to the front of the line," she said.
In total, just 1,804 cases were completed during that three-month period, 85 percent of which ended with orders of removal. In over 93 percent of the cases that ordered deportation, the children did not have legal counsel and did not attend the hearing.
"That is shocking but it is what the statistics show," Marks told Politico.
"People, who are not represented, tend to lose at a much, much higher rate. It's very concerning because when it is children, you are concerned if they have been fully advised of their rights. And if it is in absentia at their first hearing, how do we know?"
Immigration rights advocates insist the system is unjust.
"By pushing cases too quickly through the courts, it is just form over substance — simply a veneer of due process," Jennifer Podkul, an attorney and senior program officer at the Women's Refugee Commission, told Politico. "Giving a kid a hearing before they have adequate time to find an attorney or to be in a position to articulate a fear of return is not justice."
The ACLU and another immigrant rights organization filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice this summer on behalf of unrepresented children facing deportation proceedings. The suit argues that the children would be prevented from getting a fair immigration hearing
unless given legal representation.
The Obama administration has allocated millions of dollars of funds for legal services for illegal minors, and has also accelerated efforts to increase the number of attorneys available to child migrants.
Republicans have pressed for changes in the law to enable faster deportations. They also want to prevent government funding for attorneys for illegal children and have repeatedly blocked attempts by the government to increase funding.
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