Rocket dockets speed juvenile immigrant cases

Following the crisis declared by President Obama last summer when tens of thousands of unaccompanied children crossed the border into the US and filled overflowing emergency detention centers, the administration established a priority juvenile docket or “rocket docket” to speed deportation proceeding. The Justice Department requires undocumented juveniles to make their first appearance within 21 days of their deportation cases coming before the court. Thousands of juveniles, many appearing in court without representation and some not even appearing, have been issued deportation orders.

These expedited hearings have caused concerned among advocates in the legal community who fear that these children will not have time to find competent legal assistance and will not be afforded due process. According to some experts, children without a lawyer have a 90% likelihood of deportation, and according to recently released reports from the federal government, in almost half the 13,451 cases heard since July 2014, the children were unrepresented by counsel.

The results of deportation for some of these children may be life threatening. Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, has noted, “We deal with cases that are often, in effect, death penalty cases.”

Some officials believe that this push to speed deportation cases will send a strong message to the children’s home countries, helping to deter illegal migration. Because many of the children embarked on the dangerous journeys to the US to escape gang violence and abject poverty, human rights advocates disagree with this assessment, though the numbers have dropped. About 10,000 children were picked up in June, but that number dropped to around 5,000 in July.

Despite the drop, the backlog of cases keeps growing, overwhelming immigration courts which are already dealing with a backlog of more than 375,000 cases. President Obama has requested 55 new judges, but Judge Marks believes it will take more than 100 new judges to begin to address the issue. Whatever tactics are employed to enhance enforcement, Judge Marks notes, “Immigration law enforcement must stand on its own and not be allowed to overshadow or to control the immigration judicial process.”

In other court proceedings on immigration issues, the Department of Justice filed a 60-page document requesting that Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California reconsider her earlier order calling for the release of tens of thousands of immigrant mothers and children held in detention centers. Instead, on August 21, Judge Gee entered an order saying that children, with few exceptions, could not be held longer than 72 hours and gave federal officials until October 23 to comply with her order.

Dozier Miller’s Immigration Counsel:

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