Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A look inside immigration court for children

A judge hears the cases of immigrant teens in Los Angeles earlier this week.
A judge hears the cases of immigrant teens in Los Angeles earlier this week.
Graham Clark
A judge hears the cases of immigrant teens in Los Angeles earlier this week.
A teen girl from Guatemala appeared in immigration court. No translator could be provided to speak her preferred language, a Mayan dialect.
Graham Clark
A judge hears the cases of immigrant teens in Los Angeles earlier this week.
A 17 year-old boy appeared in immigration court, requesting to be deported to Mexico.
Graham Clark

A couple of times a week, on the high floors of a bank building near Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, immigration judges hear the cases of children and teens.

The juvenile court dockets within the already strained federal immigration court system have become increasingly busy lately, as more children and teens from Central America have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border solo or with family members. And in Los Angeles, where many of these kids are reunited with relatives within the region's large Central American community, it's not hard to get a sense of the demand.
There are two juvenile immigration court dockets in Los Angeles per week, one for detained children still in federal custody, the other for kids who have been released to family members.

One recent Thursday morning, attorney Kristen Jackson of Public Counsel, which represents some juvenile clients, studied the docket list posted outside the courtroom: 24 kids, all but one from Central America. She recalled how the released kids' docket didn't exist in Los Angeles until about five years ago.

"Actually, at the time, the presiding immigration judge was concerned there might not be enough children to justify having a separate children’ docket," Jackson said.

Things have changed. On the days that released minors are seen, long lines of children and teens, parents, siblings, and attorneys - for the lucky few who have them - snake down the hallway as the kids wait to appear before an immigration judge in a tiny courtroom.

On the days when detained youths are seen, the docket typically runs shorter. The kids are brought in to the courtroom from federal shelters and foster homes, often accompanied by a social worker and contracted pro bono legal counsel.

But these hearings also illustrate a complicated process: This week, or example, a teenage girl from Guatemala who sat down before the judge revealed that her first language was Mam, a Mayan language. The court interpreter spoke Spanish, which she understood, but not fluently. The pro-bono attorney representing her asked the judge for more time to find an interpreter in order to get a good sense of her case; it was continued to a later date.

Then there's the burden on the court system itself, already backlogged with roughly 375,000 pending cases. By law, the minors arriving from Central America must receive a hearing, explained immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks, a sitting judge in San Francisco and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

"The law affecting juvenile entrants who are apprehended at the border makes a distinction between children who are coming from Canada or Mexico, contiguous countries to the U.S., and children who come from any other place in the world," Marks said.

This means recently arrived child migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala can't be quickly repatriated, as can children from Mexico. So they go into the court system, where many seek asylum and other forms of relief from deportation. And because of the sensitive nature of these cases - with many kids having fled violence in their native countries and endured more trauma along the way - these cases tend to be time-consuming.

“These are the kids of cases where we generally need to spend more time," Marks said. "One of the essential charges by law to the immigration judges…is to assure that the people who come before us understand both their rights and their responsibilities when they are in immigration court. As you can imagine, it is far more difficult to do that in the context of a juvenile, and particularly if they are unrepresented by counsel.”

Another issue, Marks said, is that in order to prioritize juvenile cases, some adults whose cases have been pending will have to wait longer.

The National Association of Immigration Judges recently sent a letter to Congress that among other things asked for more resources to help alleviate the backlog of cases, being handled by only about 240 immigration judges nationwide. President Obama has asked Congress for funding to help with the Central American migrant crisis at the border, including money for the courts, but Marks estimates this would only add about 40 judges - not enough to handle the caseload.
As more kids enter the system, juvenile dockets are being added in immigration courts around the country, and expanded in some cities. While no plans for expansion have been announced in Los Angeles, observers like Jackson of Public Counsel thinks it's inevitable.

"I think there are probably two options the court has before it," Jackson said. "One is the option to increase children's dockets...the other is that the court is going to find that the backlog of children's cases will be increasing."