Spike in undocumented, unaccompanied minors navigating Orlando courts

Posted: Nov 10, 2014 9:19 PM CSTUpdated:
Nov 10, 2014 9:19 PM CST
By Ann Keil, Reporter

Video report at Link.

ORLANDO, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35 ORLANDO) -President Barack Obama is calling it a humanitarian crisis, one that involves a rapidly growing number of children and teens who are illegally crossing the Southwest border of the United States without a parent or guardian of any kind. A FOX 35 investigation reveals hundreds of these minors are now fighting to stay in Central Florida.

The kids are entering the United States from Central America, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and they have pending cases in the Orlando immigration court because extended family members or even people from their native villages have become their temporary sponsors as they attempt to navigate the judicial system that local immigration attorneys claim is struggling to handle the influx of cases.

“Where they had me, they started drinking and doing drugs,” said Edin, who entered the country several months ago at the age of 17 using Coyotes, the term used for those involved in human smuggling operations.

He continued. “And they wanted to take advantage of the ladies that were there with me.”

Through a translator, Edin spoke exclusively with FOX 35 saying it is important that the story of his 13-day journey and that of thousands of others teens, some who lost their lives along the way, is shared with the American public. He wants the Central Florida community to know why he risked his life and why he believes he should remain in the U.S.

Edin entered the country through Texas in mid-February coming into contact with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He is originally from Guatemala, and he claims he was running from the people who had murdered his father.

“Over there, they were threatening me so I was going to risk it, being killed over there or over here,” said Edin.

He has since been released to a relative who is living in Central Florida as he awaits his next court hearing.

“I am going to attempt to establish an asylum claim based on what happened with his father,” said Cynthia Tolbert, Edin's immigration attorney who also said no form of legal representation applied for immigration relief in Texas, where he was initially held. She claims the only thing done for him was the release to his guardian and a transferred case to Florida.

Tolbert will need to retrieve evidence from Edin's native country to help argue his case which she calls a common obstacle for local attorneys who are representing the growing number of undocumented, unaccompanied minors.

As of July, these newer immigration cases are being prioritized by the U.S. Department of Justice in Orlando and across the country in response to the influx of people crossing the Southwest border. That means these new arrivals are to expect their first hearing within 21 days.

U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson Kathryn Mattingly responded to this change via email.

“Beginning July 18, 2014, EOIR realigned its immigration court dockets, including the Orlando Immigration Court's docket, so that each unaccompanied juvenile respondent whom the Department of Homeland Security identifies receives a first master calendar hearing within 21 days, and each adult with a child or children whom the DHS identifies as released into the Alternatives to Detention Program receives a master calendar hearing within 28 days.”

“Surely on being returned, they will die. They will die,” said Sister Ann Kendrick, Community Relations with the Hope Community Center in Apopka. The center cannot provide the children with legal needs, but it is getting involved in the issue as part of its outreach to the local immigrant and working poor communities.

“They're kids. They're kids who are terrified and kids who see the option of coming North as a chance, a chance to live, a chance to eat, a chance not to be killed, not to be raped, and to maybe go to school,” said Kendrick. She said the kids keeping showing up at their doorstep looking for local relief with their sponsors.

The center helps teach the kids English and varying life skills.

“These children are escaping abuse, neglect, abandonment by their parents or their caregivers in their home countries,” said Camila Pachon-Silva, Immigration attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association. “A lot of them come to the states fleeing gang violence.”

Legal aid is also trying to lend a hand by recruiting and training private attorneys to take the cases pro-bono because they do not have the resources to do so. The number of pending cases more than doubled in a year in the Orlando Immigration court that handles all immigration matters in North and Central Florida. Department of Justice officials said the latest data reveals there are nearly 900 pending cases.

But a about a third of the Orlando immigration court's list of ‘free legal service providers' includes the words ‘may charge a nominal fee.'

“There are a lot of rules, regulations, and procedures, and sometimes, that red tape hinders progress,” said Gail Seeram, head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association of Central Florida.

Seeram objects to private attorneys charging even a nominal fee if they are on that list, and she said she has contacted the court hopeful she can help connect some of the association's approximately 300 members, who would offer their services at no charge, with the kids, and in enough time.

“Regardless of where you stand in the immigration debate, I think we should all agree that these kids should at least have a day in court,” said Pachon-Silva.

“Some of the caregivers, before they make the trip, they're giving these girls birth control because it's expected for them to get raped,” she said.

The concern voiced by Pachon-Silva, and other immigration attorneys as well as the National Association of Immigration Judges are fast-tracked cases plagued with legal errors. They believe the mistakes could send kids home who may have a legitimate, legal claim to remain in the United States.

Mattingly, with the U.S. Department of Justice, said as they adapt to the influx of cases, they will ‘concentrate on fair and expeditious hearings.”

She spelled out their plans in an email to FOX 35 as well:

“EOIR has not reorganized, rather, we have refocused immigration court resources in response to the Presidential directive regarding the influx of people crossing the southern border of the United States. EOIR received additional funds from Congress to increase the number of video teleconferencing and portable digital audio recording units in our courts to allow the agency flexibility in addressing the border crisis. However, in order to appropriately manage both our incoming and pending caseload, EOIR needs a sustained commitment from Congress to support the President's request for EOIR resources. It is challenging to predict in any one year what next year's caseload may bring, so we need a consistent source of funding that allows EOIR to remain flexible in its hiring processes, permitting us to ramp up staffing when needed, and consistently account for natural attrition of the immigration judge corps and other support staff.”

Mattingly also revealed a need for additional judges.

“Regarding staffing levels, the Department of Justice's partial hiring freeze, which ran from January 2011 to February 2014, had a significant negative and worsening impact upon EOIR's core mission, increasing the number of cases pending adjudication and extending court dockets further into the future. In February 2014, the Attorney General lifted the hiring freeze and EOIR began a hiring initiative to back-fill more than 200 vacant positions. With FY2014 enacted appropriations, EOIR is currently in the hiring process for hiring up to 32 immigration judges. We are also currently in the process of reviewing applications for temporary immigration judges. In the FY 15 President's Budget request, EOIR requested funding for 35 immigration judge teams.”

“I think we need to realize that these are people. These are people,” said Tolbert, Edin's attorney.

Edin said he crossed a dangerous river, ran for three hours straight, and repeatedly risked his life with a heart full of hope and a dream: “To go on life,” he said.

The federal government expects to spend nearly a billion dollars next year as part of the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides temporary shelter for the minors once they are identified by authorities at its shelters across the country.