Courting Danger in America

Stories, sadness, and solutions from the Federal Immigration Court

PC: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Glory is often found in big moments. A shooter hits a last-second three pointer to win the game. An astronaut takes their first step on lunar soil. A swimmer reaches his hand to finish .01 seconds before his opponent. A scientist spots a revolutionary planet in their telescope.

For our nation’s young, imported refugees, freedom is found in their big moment. As a federal judge determines their fate, they have only a few minutes to ponder the possibilities. Between case backlog and absent counsels, the high-stakes world of Federal Immigration Court is intimidating to say the least — and flawed to tell the truth.

With rising concerns over safety in countries like Guatemala and Honduras, these children need our help. Drugs, violence, and murder is the trinity in these countries. To affect real change, we must ask: what can be done to improve our courts?

Battling Backlog

The 57 courts across the United States charged with hearing immigration cases, set up in the early 1980s, in part to deal with post-Vietnam influx, are packed. Hopeful defendants and their families squeeze into courtrooms for the deciding moment.

However, with the sharp rise in immigration cases, trials rarely last longer than 10 minutes. With dozens of cases in one judge’s courtroom before lunch, it is no wonder that the decisions come with such pace. Of the 63% of minors from Central American nations requesting asylum who were denied, who couldn’t have been better served with a longer look at their situation?

If there were more judges, things might be different. Yet, the body in charge of appointing new federal judges has been taking longer and longer to complete their job. Congress can appoint or move federal judges. But, in this age of ideological divide, the process has become more political than productive. In regular civil courts, vacancies can remain unfilled for more than a year. In immigration courts, vacancies of that length could cripple the system.

Over the last few presidencies, the time for nomination and appointment has steadily grown. According to the Congressional Research Service, during George W. Bush’s presidency, approval duration extended over a year on average for the first time In regular courts, that means criminal and civil cases are piling up and taking months upon months to complete. In immigration courts, that means kids’ futures are worth only five minutes of our time.

Appoint more judges. That’s the simple solution. If Congress could agree to dedicate more resources and work together to appoint new Federal judges, we would see a dramatic decline in problems. While the Supreme Court confirmation holdup during this election season has done little to make the judicial productive, it has shed a light on a bigger issue. Congress is slow at appointing Federal judges too — it’s just less obvious for the average citizen to see. That has to change.

Contrary to what some believe, these kids aren’t criminals. They’re people. Let’s treat them that way.

Lawyer Up

Speaking English is obviously a challenge for these kids. Coming from Central American countries to flee persecution like intense gang-violence and failing governments, they have not had a chance to pick up complex English abilities.

Without English proficiency, defending oneself in a court of law would be immensely difficult. That is exactly what we ask these young refugees to do.

At first thought, it may seem that the court would appoint a defense attorney. However, since immigration infractions are classified as civil cases, no such legal protection is provided. With no English, no rights, and no lawyer, we try these migrants in a court intended to uphold ‘justice.’ We are throwing kids to the wolves — with little regard for the repercussions.

Misunderstanding leads to misrepresentation. Misrepresentation leads to deportation. Deportation means a return to the threats of Central America.

Trials without a lawyer are a scary proposition. With a huge language barrier and no knowledge of the American legal system, how could anyone succeed? In fact, without it they rarely do. The San Francisco office accept 86% of requests. Los Angeles accepts just above 50%. Houston accepted 16%. California started providing representation in 2014. Texas has not. While California may question prisoners in a gentler manner, that gigantic gap can’t be caused by nothing. Logically, lawyers are helping smooth over problems.

Once again, there’s a clear solution. Provide interpreters. Provide legal counsel. (Yes, there are realistic plans and numbers that could make this happen.) Basically, provide justice.

Moving Forward

What confounds me is our indifference to reform. How can any Congress in good nature turn a blind eye to the plight of fellow human beings, let alone these youth? From our comfy beds and privileged safety, we have an obligation to do something, even when it would be easier to change the channel and avoid the story altogether.

Key moments define us as a species. In the moment that Emma Lazarus wrote: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, /The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:/I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” she helped define our nation. When it was inscribed onto Lady Liberty, it meant something concrete.

With common-sense reform we have the chance to create many more moments of glory, as well as avoid the rising moments of pain. We are supposed to save people from the tempest, not raise the speed of its treacherous winds.

Justice is not a momentary concept. Justice should be a permanent condition. Justice is not just for you and me; justice is for everybody. Justice is what’s at stake here — each and every day.

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