At a recent hearing at L.A.'s busy immigration courts, a group of 10 children faced a federal judge, taking the next step in making the legal case to stay in the US.
One mother, saying she could not find an attorney she could afford, opted to represent her two sons from El Salvador herself. The judge admonished her when it turned out she had filed the paperwork for asylum incorrectly.
A father, who had made the dangerous journey north on the train known as "La Bestia" more than a decade ago, accompanied his teenage son, who he hadn't seen in 14 years, and had taken the same route in July.
These children are some of the first to enter the immigration court system under a new, expedited program that requires them to have a court hearing within 21 days of their initial filing. Their first hearing was in August and this past week was the next step in that long and complex legal process.
It's part of the federal government's response to the surge of unaccompanied minors that peaked over the summer. More than 68,000 were apprehended along the U.S. border in the last fiscal year, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
In the past month, the number of apprehensions has dropped considerably, but the courts are now faced with a massive backlog and long wait times. Nationwide, over 400,000 cases are pending, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). In Los Angeles, there are 7,609 children currently in the courts.
ONE TEEN, FLEEING NORTH
One of them is Juan Carlos Guido's 14-year-old son, who made the two-week trip north from El Salvador over the summer.
Guido says his son fled their home after getting death threats from gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha, a gang with roots in Los Angeles and now powerful in El Salvador.
"They told us if we didn’t give them $200 per month, they were going to kill him," said Guido in Spanish, outside the courtroom. "That’s why I came here to the court. We’ll see what happens."
Guido, like about half of the families in court Thursday, did not have an attorney with him. Unlike criminal trials, the immigration courts are considered an administrative process and those facing deportation are not guaranteed a lawyer. That could be a big factor in the outcome of the case.
In hearings where there is no attorney, nearly 9 out of 10, or 86 percent of children, are ultimately removed from the U.S., says Emily Ryo, a law professor at the University of Southern California. Compare that to 30 percent when the child has legal representation.
"That's a huge disparity between those two types of cases," said Ryo, who said the numbers come from LA court info dating back to 2005.
STRAINING TO RESPOND
The lack of attorneys is the subject of an ongoing class action suit, filed by several groups, including Public Counsel, a group that provides pro bono legal aid for youth.
Law professor Emily Ryo says the case could be a "sea change" for immigration courts. But, she added, the process could take a long time – perhaps years – to work its way through the legal system.
What's being done in the short term?
Recently, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law which provides $3 million to fund legal counsel for children. The state will start receiving applications from legal groups starting next week and it expects funding to be released by the end of November, according to Brown's office.
The federal agency that oversees the courts, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, is in the process of hiring up to 32 new immigration judges and has requested funding for 35 more immigration teams to take on some of the casework. But the EOIR hasn't given a timeline for the hiring or said how many judges would be assigned to Los Angeles.
In the meantime, families of the children whose cases are working their way through the courts say they're trying to live normal lives. Many children are attending local schools. Guido says his 14-year-old son is in the 9th grade at a local high school, focusing on his studies and on making new friends.