2:27 pm ET
Aug 26, 2014

Immigration Courts Struggle With Children’s Cases


City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a news conference on May 20, 2014. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Dozens of children filled the halls inside a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, piling into crowded courtrooms as they waited for their turn before an immigration judge.

When his case was called, Luis, a 14-year-old boy from El Salvador with spiked hair, sat next to his aunt, and replied to a judge who addressed him in English. “Buenos Dias,” he said quietly, before an interpreter took over.

The children are part of a group of 57,000 minors apprehended at the U.S. border since last October, the vast majority from Central America, where they say violent gangs have forced tens of thousands of children to flee.

About 5,000 of those children have made their way to family members in the New York City area. On Tuesday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito toured the New York City immigration court that will ultimately decide whether each child can remain in the U.S. or be deported.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Ms. Mark-Viverito, who along with Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city will work to provide services for the children.

The de Blasio administration has formed a task force to address the issue.

“To see how congested it was, the number of people we’re talking about, how distressing it must for the families and how disoriented they must be,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said. “A lot of these kids are coming from extremely dire situations and dangerous situations.”

Though the immigration court process has been expedited at the direction of PresidentBarack Obama, it involves multiple hearings and can still take months, testing the limits of the city’s system. Most of the children in the New York area are living with family members while they wait, in limbo.

Advocates say they are scrambling to provide legal representation for the children. About half of the some 270 children who have appeared before a judge in New York City so far didn’t have an attorney, said JoJo Annobil, the attorney-in-charge with the Immigration Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society. None of the children have been deported so far, he said.

Maureen Schad, a pro-bono attorney at Chadbourne and Parke LLP, one of the firms providing representation to the children along with the Legal Aid Society and other groups, said the organizations are overwhelmed.

“Right now we cannot, among us, represent all of these kids,” Ms. Ketler Schad said. “A child who has suffered severe trauma, we’ve seen what an enormous difference it can make to have legal representation. We have to be there.”

Most of the children are seeking asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which can apply to those under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by a parent. The children are asked dozens of questions on “screening” forms, such as, “Are you afraid of gangs?” “How did Border Patrol treat you?” and “Have you ever seen a dead body?”

Some critics of the expedited process have argued that is designed to speed up deportation proceedings. Ms. Mark-Viverito said she disagrees.

“These children can’t be in limbo forever. These are children, they have to get some stability in their life,” she said. The speaker said she is working with other council members and Mr. de Blasio to see how the city can be helpful.”

Ms. Schad said the groups need attorneys to volunteer to represent the children.