Young immigrants must risk deportation for chance to gain legal status
Since November, Oscar has been living with his grandmother in Fort Worth, attending public high school and dreaming of becoming a police officer.
He is one of thousands of young migrants from Central America who crossed the border illegally and hope to win permission to stay in the United States. He was told to report to immigration court on July 24.
As his court date approached, Oscar grew increasingly nervous. He does not speak English. He could not afford to hire a lawyer and was unaware of free legal services.
Oscar, 18, had seen news reports about immigrants who went to court being issued electronic ankle monitors, about women and children deported by plane.
What, he wondered, should he do?
The question underscores the dilemma faced by thousands of immigrants who have come to the U.S. in recent months, particularly those without lawyers. To stay in the country legally, they must first face federal authorities and risk being deported.
When youths fail to appear, judges can order them deported. Since 2009, the number of such orders has more than doubled to 2,826 so far this fiscal year, according to court records. But the growth has been proportional to the caseload, leaving the no-show rate relatively unchanged at about 30%.
They fail to appear for a variety of reasons, advocates say: Some move; others are confused, struggle to find attorneys or hide out of fear.
“I’m afraid they will deport me,” said Oscar, trembling in his red soccer jersey on the living room couch at his grandmother’s house. “If I go back, they will kill me for sure.”
By “they,” he meant gangs battling in his hometown in El Salvador: MS-13 and 18th Street. One dominated his neighborhood; the other his school.
“If I joined one, the other would kill me,” he said.
The longer Oscar resisted, he said, the greater the chance the gangs would attack him, his parents and two siblings. A 20-year-old cousin had resisted, and last year one of the gangs shot and killed him.
So last October, Oscar paid $3,000 to travel north by bus. He was caught and released to his grandmother after crossing the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft.
Federal immigration officials and courts have been overwhelmed in recent months with the influx of more than 57,000 unaccompanied youth who crossed the border this fiscal year, as well as others who crossed with parents, all mostly from Central America.
By law, Central American youths are entitled to court hearings before they can be deported, but not to lawyers. About half of those who arrive unaccompanied, like Oscar, don’t have attorneys, according to court records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Of the unaccompanied children who find attorneys, 47% have been allowed to stay legally, compared with 10% of those without attorneys, according to the study.
On Friday, advocacy groups in Seattle filed for an injunction to prevent children from being deported if they don’t have attorneys. The groups recently filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the youths have been denied legal representation and due process.
The Obama administration has promised swifter court hearings, sending more judges to the border and enlisting 100 lawyers and paralegals to represent the youth in 29 cities.
Lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), had proposed speeding youths’ hearings and deportations, warning that otherwise they may be released to parents or sponsors and evade authorities.
“Most children being issued notices to appear and released to a sponsor will not show up for their hearings, instead disappearing into the landscape as an undocumented immigrant,” said Jessica Sandlin, a Cornyn spokeswoman.
Last week, the Los Angeles immigration court fast-tracked unaccompanied youths’ initial hearings to within 21 days of when their cases were filed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Courts in Miami and elsewhere are expected to adopt similar “rocket dockets.”
Children’s attorneys said they had too little time to prepare and to arrange travel — for instance, for children summoned Monday to Los Angeles from Louisiana, New York and Virginia.
Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges, was in Washington last week with a message for members of Congress: Provide immigrants legal help, and don’t fast-track hearings, particularly for children.
“It’s counterintuitive when you tell a judge, ‘Let’s speed these cases up,’” Marks said. “These cases need to go more slowly because of the vulnerability — the need to be more solicitous of juveniles, and make sure they find counsel so their stories can be told.”
In Dallas and other cities, legal experts from local nonprofits provide “know your rights” presentations to children awaiting court. Lawyers from the San Antonio nonprofit RAICES meet children held in a massive shelter on Lackland Air Force Base.
Lawyers say one of the best routes for children to stay in the U.S. is to pursue Special Immigrant Juvenile, or SIJ, status, which is granted to those who suffered abuse, neglect or abandonment. Once granted SIJ status, children are eligible to apply for a green card. But the process is complicated, even with the aid of an immigration attorney.
The number of SIJ applicants has more than doubled since 2010, and so have approvals. But they are still rare. Last fiscal year, judges approved 3,434 for all nationalities.
“The procedural hurdles are very high,” Dallas lawyer Paul Zoltan said.
Children who make the trip alone may have a better chance of staying than those who came with parents, advocates say. They often join relatives who have lived in the U.S. and can better navigate the legal system.
Such was the case with Bryan, 16, who fled El Salvador last November to join his mother, Mirna, in Texas. They asked that their last name not be used for fear they might be targeted by the transnational gang that dominated his school.
Mirna, 36, a factory worker, came to the U.S. illegally in 1998, walking through the Arizona desert, and has had temporary legal status since 2001. Zoltan thinks her son has a strong case for SIJ status because his father abandoned them when Bryan was 3 months old.
The family could have avoided immigration authorities. Instead, they opted to hire Zoltan and pursue legal status. “I’m nervous, but I also have faith that nothing bad will happen,” Mirna said.
Oscar never found an attorney. He had to decide on his own whether to go to court. On July 24, his case was one of 21 on the juvenile docket in Dallas. All but one of the youths were from Central America.
A Guatemalan teenager who managed to hire an attorney was granted SIJ status. Most of the rest did not have attorneys, and their cases were continued as their families searched for legal help. Immigration courts provide youths and guardians with lists of free legal services — when they show up for their first hearing.
Then it was Oscar’s turn. The clerk called his name.
“Is he here?” she asked in Spanish.
Judge Michael Baird detailed Oscar’s case and said the court had mailed a notice of the hearing to two addresses on file. Neither was returned. He directed the clerk to check the lobby.
Oscar wasn’t there. He was still at home, too scared to come to court.
“He’s now two and a half hours late,” the judge announced. “I am entering an order to remove him to El Salvador.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.