New surge in child migrants renews focus on deportations
washington » As federal officials prepare for a new wave of child migrants from Central America— which includes the opening of a new, 1,000- bed facility in Lakewood— new statistics show that U. S. courts still are trying to process cases from the last major surge in 2014.
That year, an estimated 68,000 children — mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras— were apprehended as they tried to cross the U. S. border illegally and without a parent.
Many of these cases remain under review, accord--
ing to federal records, and the backlog in immigration courts could get worse as authorities deal with thousands of new children who arrived at the end of 2015.
The federal system is “better prepared, but it’s not fully prepared,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, which helps migrant children get legal help.
Between July 2014 and December, the Executive Office for Immigration Review said it received nearly 50,000 new charging documents formigrant children. During that period, however, fewer than 21,000 cases were completed.
Of those “initial case completions,” the decisions were a coin flip: About half the children were ordered removed from the country. It’s a system that immigration attorneys said is often unfair and one that federal statistics show is burdened by demand and uncertainty.
For example, in 8,510 of the 9,695 removal cases— or 88 percent — the orders were issued in absentia, meaning the children weren’t at the hearing.
The fate of those children is often unknown.
Officials with the Executive Office for Immigration Reviewreferred those questions to theU. S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not return phone calls seeking answers on how many of those children were deported.
But federal authorities defended the process.
“For an in absentia order of removal to be issued, the immigration judgemust find that proper noticewas given and that the Department of Homeland Security has established removability,” wrote Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswomanfor theExecutive Office for Immigration Review, in a statement.
Immigration activists have complained the removal orders issued in absentia aren’t fair — because the children often are not ready.
Court statistics have shown a child’s chance to remain in the U. S. largely is dependent on whether he or she is represented by an attorney. Between 2005 and 2014, U. S. immigration courts heard more than 100,000 cases of unaccompanied children.
The ones with a lawyer were allowed to stay nearly half the time. Those without anattorneywere toldto leave the country 90 percent of the time, according to federal records obtained by Syracuse University.
“Children who are represented by counsel are five times as likely to be granted some kind of status and remain in the United States,” Young said.
She added that child migrants are getting representation about half the time, although she said she was worried a new spike in border crossings could have an impact. “I’m thinking the rate of representation may drop down again,” she said.
Other statistics compiled by SyracuseUniversity show U. S. immigration courts have struggled to meet the demand. As of December, there were nearly 470,000 cases of all ages pending in U. S. immigration courts — an all- time high.
The wait is particularly pronounced in Denver, where, as ofAug. 31, the projected wait time was 1,988 days, the second highest in the nation.
One reason for the growing caseload was the flood of child migrants who arrived in 2014.
A new influx is raising concerns again.
In the last three months of 2015, authorities stopped more than 17,000 unaccompanied children — more than twice the number they apprehended during that period in 2014.
The wave has compelled the Obama administration to prepare three new shelters, including one in Lakewood that is expected to open in April.
The facility is prompting questions from local immigration attorneys. Abbie Johnson, of the Rocky Mountain ImmigrantAdvocacy Network, said it’s unclear what access to counsel that children in the facilitywill receive at the center.
And while most of the children will be sent to relatives across the country — where their cases will be heard in local courts— she said she wanted to know what would happen to the children who aren’t connected with a relative or sponsor family, andwhether those cases would be heard in the busy Denver courts.
“I don’t think it will be a huge number,” Johnson said, “but it is also an unknown.”