More than 7,000 immigrant children have been ordered deported without appearing in court since large numbers of minors from Central America began illegally crossing the U.S. border in 2013, federal statistics show.
The high number of deportation orders has raised alarm among immigrant advocates, who say many of those children were never notified of their hearing date because of problems with the immigration court system.
In interviews and court documents, attorneys said notices sometimes arrived late, at the wrong address or not at all. In some cases, children were ordered to appear in a court near where they were initially detained, rather than where they were living, attorneys said.
"What was a border crisis has now become a due process crisis," said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group.
Her organization and dozens of others sent a letter in February asking the government to temporarily stop issuing removal orders when a child fails to appear in court, and to reopen cases in which deportations were ordered.
Unprecedented numbers of immigrant children started showing up at the southern U.S. border in the fall of 2013. Many traveled without an adult and said they were fleeing rising gang violence in Honduras and El Salvador.
The government filed deportation cases against 62,363 minors between October 2013 and January of this year, according to federal data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
At least 7,706 of them were ordered removed after they failed to show up in court.
It is not known how many of those children were aware of their hearings and chose not to appear. It is also not known how many have actually been sent home.
According to the most recent data available from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that carries out deportations, 1,901 unaccompanied immigrant children were deported from the United States in fiscal year 2014, but some of those cases may have predated the recent surge.
Reports of notification errors come as the Obama administration has sped up deportation hearings for arriving youth — in part to dissuade others back home from making the journey north.
Last summer, Obama instructed courts to realign their dockets so underage immigrants would appear before a judge within 21 days of ICE officials filing a deportation case against them. Previously they would wait months or more than a year for their initial hearing.
Immigrant advocates say the crush of fast-tracked cases may have overwhelmed the courts.
Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which administers the courts, said immigrants who don't appear are ordered removed "when the immigration judge is satisfied that notice of the time and place of the proceeding was provided to the respondent at the address the respondent provided."
Mattingly said she could not comment on alleged notification errors because her agency is fighting a class-action lawsuit demanding that the government provide attorneys to immigrant children. The case includes several plaintiffs who say they did not receive proper notice to appear in court.
A federal judge in Washington state will hear arguments Friday on the government's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.
In an indication that the government is aware of some problems, immigration officials recently reopened the case of one of the plaintiffs, a 17-year-old from El Salvador who was ordered deported in September for failing to appear at his hearing.
In court documents, government attorneys said officials had "uncovered some discrepancies" that called into question whether he had received notification of his court date.
Immigrant advocates say they have heard of hundreds of similar problems, some of which were detailed in last month's letter demanding that judges stop ordering deportations when children fail to show up.
The letter cites a Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service attorney who said that at one point last year, only one of her 13 clients had received a notice to appear before their first hearings.
Another advocate said a child was ordered to appear in court in New Orleans while still in government custody in Virginia.
The head of the union that represents immigration judges said she had seen notification problems in her own San Francisco courtroom. In one case, a notice was sent to a rural address where the child lived, instead of the P.O. box where the child's family received mail, said Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges.
"Our system is far from foolproof," Marks said. "It's a difficult situation to try to know what percentage of those cases are innocent errors and lack of understanding, and which percentage of people who do not appear are consciously trying to avoid the process."
Marks said she often gives immigrants a second chance to appear before ordering them deported. But she said other judges do not, perhaps because of their interpretation of a 1996 law that stiffened the consequences for immigrants who fail to show up.
Advocates for stricter enforcement of immigration laws said they were also concerned by reports that the government has failed to notify children of their court dates.
"They're supposed to know where these kids are going when they release them," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He said he also suspects some people may receive notices but choose not to go to court because they believe they can live in the country undetected.
"They know that nobody is coming out looking for them," Mehlman said. "The reason we had this surge is that people understood that these laws weren't being enforced."
Margaret Taylor, a law professor at Wake Forest University, said immigrants who have been ordered deported may eventually file motions to reopen their cases. To do so, an immigrant must prove that he or she did not receive a notice to appear or couldn't show up for the hearing.
Those future cases will create new strains on what Taylor called an underfunded, overburdened and "antiquated" court system. She noted that immigrants are required to file address changes through the mail, instead of online, which may open the door to errors.
Court errors are one reason why immigrants should be provided with attorneys, advocates say.
Statistics show that immigrants who have lawyers are more likely to show up in court and win their cases. The government does not provide legal counsel to those facing deportation.
More than 94% of the unaccompanied minors ordered removed without appearing in court during the last six months of last year did not have an attorney, according to immigration court statistics.
One of them is a 15-year-old girl living in Los Angeles.
The girl, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit being heard Friday, said in court documents she fled El Salvador after gang members pressured her to become "romantically involved." She said they killed a female classmate who refused similar advances.
The girl was detained at the Texas border in May and released the following month to her grandmother, Blanca Zelaya.
Zelaya said she contacted the court repeatedly to find out the girl's hearing date, but was told that she had to wait for a notification to arrive in the mail. It never did.
She later found out the hearing had already been held — and her granddaughter ordered deported.
"I feel frustrated and helpless," said Zelaya, who said she was afraid of what might happen if the girl was sent back. "I prefer not to think about it."