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

Most child migrant cases still pending in court

A sketch of a teen girl who appeared in immigration court in Los Angeles, in the summer of 2014. No translator could be provided to speak her preferred language.
A sketch of a teen girl who appeared in immigration court in Los Angeles, in the summer of 2014. No translator could be provided to speak her preferred language.
Graham Clark

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Last summer, Yoel Vallecillo wasn't sure what her fate in the United States would be. She and her younger brother had a pending application for asylum. They were terrified of going back to Honduras, where they'd been threatened by gangs.

But the immigration court process was terrifying in its own way.
“We were nervous," Yoel said in Spanish. "I was scared because I didn’t know how it would be, if it would be tough, or easy.”

After months of waiting, four hearings, and an interview with an immigration official that still makes Yoel shudder, the two teens won their case last month.

Yoel, who is now 18, and her brother are among the tens of thousands of children and teens who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an unprecedented wave of child migrants. Most were from Central America, and said they left their countries fleeing gang violence or threats.

Arrivals dropped off after last summer. But most of these kids are now fighting to stay in the country, their cases pending in immigration court. According to the federal Executive Office for Immigration Review, between mid-July 2014 and the end of last month, more than 25,000 minors under 18 received notices to appear in immigration court. Almost 19,000 of these cases are still pending.

In an interview with KPCC last year, Yoel described part of what had driven her north:

Yoel says she was targeted because a local gang leader wanted her for himself, by force - regardless of how she felt: "He threatened me, and wanted me to be with him, either the right way or the wrong way. I didn’t want to live like that. I didn’t want to live with a gang member."
She fled the home where she lived with her mother and younger siblings for her aunt's home. But members of the gang followed her there one day, forcing her to flee out the back door. It was then that Yoel decided to leave Honduras.

Yoel arrived in December 2013, ahead of her brother. She traveled north, accompanied by a family friend who looked after her. To get here, they traveled through Mexico on the train nicknamed "La Bestia," the beast. She spent roughly a month on and off the train, hiding in cramped spaces at the bottom of boxcars to stay out of sight of criminals who target migrants, especially young women.

As kids like Yoel have arrived, many have sought asylum. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials report that in the roughly three months between last Oct. 1 and Jan. 6, the agency received 2,733 asylum applications from minors - more than in all of fiscal year 2014, and about four times as many as in all of fiscal year 2013.

Others have sought what is called Special Immigrant Juvenile status, which is reserved for those who have been abused or abandoned by their parents. Close to 6,000 applications for this status were filed in fiscal year 2014, according to USCIS; nearly 4,000 have been filed since last Oct. 1, the start of the 2015 federal fiscal year.

The bulk of the kids who arrived last year were placed with U.S. relatives; about 6,000 child migrants had settled in California by the end of last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

By now most have had their first day in court, said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, head of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
"They're in a variety of procedural postures, and are still working their way through the court system," Marks said. 

The so-called "rocket docket" - a federal decision to expedite the cases of child migrants - has sped things up for minor clients, said Lindsay Toczylowski, an attorney with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles. The legal group represented Yoel and her brother pro bono.

But critics complain that expedited hearings for kids has caused even greater backlogs for adults awaiting immigration decisions, with some immigrants' cases delayed years.
Relatively few of the recent young migrants have been ordered deported so far. According to the immigration courts, of the 25,000-plus child migrant cases that entered the court system between July and February, only about 4,000 have resulted in removal orders - the vast majority of these issued in absentia, which typically occurs when someone fails to show up in court.

These could be kids who didn't have counsel and didn't realize they had a hearing, attorney Toczylowski said.

"It could also be kids who were given continuances to find an attorney, couldn't find one, so didn't go back," she wrote in an email. "Or sometimes kids who never talked to anyone about their case, don't understand the process, and just don't want to go to court.  Sometimes it is also kids who decided to go home."
Yoel is just glad her court process is over. She says she's happy living with her father and his family in Inglewood, and looks forward to the future. Right now she's focusing on English classes.

"My plan is to keep studying, to prepare myself," she said.

Meanwhile, authorities are bracing themselves for the possibility of another spike in children and families crossing the border this summer.