Some 52,000 unaccompanied infants, children and teens have been apprehended along the United States’ Southern border since October of last year, and twenty nine of them appeared in federal immigration court in Lower Manhattan on Wednesday. They represent the first wave of some 10,000 individual cases that advocates estimate will be heard in New York in the next year.
This year has seen a massive increase in unaccompanied children attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border — the numbers are up 99 percent, according to Customs and Border Protection. In the past, it could often take over a year before cases like these got a court date, but the Justice Department, on orders from President Obama, has expedited hearings for accompanied minors across the country. An additional thirty cases will be heard in New York on Thursday, and another thirty on Friday.
Lawyers from The Door, Catholic Charities and Legal Aid Society were at the federal building on Wednesday to assist the children, many of whom are fleeing escalating violence in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
According to the Public Advocate’s office, about 3,500 children are currently awaiting hearings in New York; only Texas is hosting more unaccompanied children. (An estimated 3,181 are awaiting hearings in Florida, and an additional 3,150 in California.) The New York Immigration Coalition puts the number of children in New York slightly higher at 4,244.
Some of those children have been released to family members who were already living in the United States, says Thanu Yakupitiyage, of the New York Immigration Coalition: “In New York, there’s a pretty large large Honduran and Guatemalan population, particularly in Long Island and Upstate, so some of these children are coming to live with their families here.” Children who have not been released to their families have been placed in shelters while they await their hearings.
Most children who appear in immigration court without a lawyer or advocate will be deported, but with a lawyer, the odds shift in their favor: in roughly half of those cases, courts will find children are eligible for either asylum or refugee status, Yakupitiyage says.
The New York Immigration Coalition is joining forces with legal and social service organizations, as well as the Mayor’s office of immigrant affairs, to provide legal aid and social service for the minors who have recently arrived in New York.
“A lot of these young people, some of them don’t even speak English, and they don’t understand what’s happening and [they] are being put in front of immigration judges — it’s basically like a conveyor belt to deportation, and we’re trying to make sure that there are resources for these young children to have legal representation,” Yakupitiyage says.
In addition to legal help, the group is working to provide shelter and socials services, including assistance for female immigrants who experienced sexual violence during the trek.
Public Advocate Letitia James, a lawyer by trade who’s worked with Legal Aid in the past, says she will undergo training to represent children pro bono in immigration court. She is asking other lawyers to do the same. James is also calling for the creation of a help desk at immigration court to provide resources to children and families.
New York’s immigration court is expected to hear 65 cases a day next week, and 30 cases a day going forward, until all are processed.