Becky McBride met Thursday in New York City with a young woman who recently fled Honduras, where her mother and father abused her and local gangs extorted her and her grandmother. Honduran police told her to find help elsewhere: “We can’t protect you, so our recommendation would be to either pay the war tax or get out of town.”
As an attorney for Atlas: DIY, an outreach to undocumented youth in Brooklyn, N.Y., McBride befriends and represents immigrants as young as 14 from 30 different countries. She told me the Honduran woman left her office today with a smile instead of tears, a few loaves of fresh baked bread, and a bag of clothes from the Swag Palace, Atlas’s donation center: “We want them to feel like agents of their own fate.”
More than 57,000 children like McBride’s client have crossed the U.S. border alone since October, many of them running from gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. With a record 375,000 immigration cases now pending nationwide, the Justice Department has decided to hasten due process for the young. Immigration courts will schedule initial hearings for each child within three weeks, a big leap forward from the usual months or years many older immigrants wait to see a judge.
Later today, House lawmakers will vote on an emergency spending bill that would authorize new immigration judges, install National Guard troops along the border, and change a 2008 law making it difficult to deport child immigrants. The GOP scrapped a more comprehensive, $659-million plan Thursday after failing to win support from its tea party members. Even if today’s measure passes, nothing will change until at least September. The Senate began its August recess last night. Before leaving Washington, Senators failed to get enough votes to pass their own reform measure, which would have cost $3.5 billion.
The 2008 law authorized during the Bush administration protects unaccompanied child immigrants from deportation until they receive a hearing, but judges can still deport children in absentia if they miss their court dates. Some children don’t show because they’ve gone to live with relatives in another state while awaiting legal proceedings, or they’re just afraid.
Reaching court is a challenge of its own for little ones, McBride told me: “If you’re eight years old and you just arrived in New York City and you don’t know how to take the subway yourself, then how are you going to get there?”
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., both claimed 9 in 10 child immigrants fail to arrive at their hearings. Juan Osuna, director of the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, said the absentee rate was closer to 50 percent.
Some lawyers worry that speeding children through court will only complicate the immigration backlog. “When the hearing date is three months out, it’s no big deal,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, Va. “When it’s three weeks, that’s nowhere near enough time.”
Judge Dana Leigh Marks in San Francisco said going too fast leaves the due process more vulnerable to challenges: “It ends up making cases take longer overall and results in longer appeals, so no one is happy.”
The U.S. public and its politicians remain divided on immigration. An Associated Press poll released Tuesday showed 53 percent of Americans feel no moral obligation to treat those fleeing violence or political strife as refugees.