DOJ Pushed Up Court Proceedings For Newest Unaccompanied Undocumented Children

Aug 4, 2014

A new Department of Justice policy works to get the newest unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the U.S. to court faster.
Credit Creative Commons via Flickr / U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A new move from the Department of Justice hopes to jumpstart the court proceedings for some of the most recent unaccompanied minors to arrive in the United States. 

The speed, though, has many immigration lawyers alarmed.

The federal government’s new policy says many of the kids who have come into the country on or after May, 1, must have their first court hearing within 21 days from the start of their legal proceedings: the filing of their notice to appear in court.

Lauren Alder Reid, counsel for legislative and public affairs with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, says this change is not only reasonable but necessary.

“The 21-day time-frame is a part of a series of recent steps that we’re taking to address this influx of migrants who have come across the southern border,” she says. “And we’re continuing to refocus our resources where they’re needed the most.”

But Miami is juggling a lot of these cases. It is one of 10 cities where unaccompanied children are being sent for immigration proceedings as shelters on the border struggle to accommodate more children. Lawyers who represent the kids say this timeframe results in an unreasonable caseload for lawyers and judges alike.

Randy McGrorty puts the daily load about 50 cases per judge in Miami. As executive director of Catholic Legal Services, an organization that has worked to represent unaccompanied kids tried in Miami, he’s worried this pace will prevent some of the kids from getting adequate legal help.

“Children who are 7 and 9 can not speak for themselves, they can’t articulate a claim that might be colorable under our law,” McGrorty says. “And so the end result is a denial of due process to the most vulnerable amongst us.”

The new DOJ policy only requires the first hearing within the 21-day timeframe, though, and cases have always been heard as a group at this step in the legal process. Often, no judgment is made at that hearing: it sets dates for documents to be filed and the case is continued later.

However, immigration advocates say this initial hearing is one of the few times they have an opportunity to intervene in a case. McGrorty and his colleagues say 21 days is not enough time to screen cases for kids who might be eligible for release from the shelters where they are held during court proceedings.

At this rate, judges in Miami are slated to hold the initial hearing for upwards of 3,000 cases.