Brooklyn attorneys eye immigration ‘surge docket’ to help unaccompanied minors

August 14, 2014 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Images of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border for safer lands has been a common theme for many southwestern states this summer. But as the number of minor immigrants rises, states farther east are being called on to assist in bearing the load. The majority, if not all, have entered the country illegally sent by their parents in a final effort to protect their children from the seething gang violence in countries like Honduras and El Salvador. Many of the minors have found shelter with relatives in New York, but being illegal immigrants, they need to be processed and their cases heard for likely deportation. 

Immigration is not a foreign topic for Brooklyn, a borough housing more than 900,000 of New York’s foreign-born population. Border crossing, on the other hand, is an issue generally thought of as a concern for the Western states that closely border Central America. This past summer, however, the immigration crisis has hit the Northeast causing worry for the federal immigration docket.

Twenty-nine minors who entered the country unaccompanied by adults appeared Wednesday before New York immigration Judge Frank Loprest Jr., some with attorneys, others with family by their sides. Six-year-old Gabriela and her brother Brandon Lopez, 15, were among the minors hoping to be allowed to legally stay with family already living in the U.S.

The siblings participated in the first day of surge docket hearings at federal immigration court. The “surge docket” is an initiative by the federal government to help expedite the legal process for the more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have been processed into the system since October.

The speed by which the cases of minor children are scheduled to be processed has some Brooklyn attorneys worried about efficiency and effectiveness.

“It is great that the U.S. has a system that provides support for those children,” Brooklyn immigration attorney Nicole Abruzzo told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  “I don’t think the way we are going about, however, it is the most efficient.”

American Immigration Lawyers Association is one of five groups handling unaccompanied minor cases. The others are the Legal Aid Society and nonprofits Catholic Charities, Safe Passage and The Door. The groups have been preparing for a surge in cases since they learned 3, 347 unaccompanied minors had arrived in the state since January. New York is second to Texas with the most cases.

“We want to make sure we know what the process looks like,” said Jojo Annobil, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society.

The groups will take on daily surge dockets through the end of August with an average of 30 cases per day. They initially shared a responsibility of one docket per month per group. Next week alone, AILA will take on two surge dockets, which is 65 new cases in just one day.

This is a heavy burden for an immigration court that hears, on average, 100 cases per month.

“It is very unusual,” attorney Cheryl David said of the surge docket. “We are extremely backlogged in New York getting cases heard on a regular [immigration] court calendar. This will but a lot of strain on the court.”  

David noted of many of her own cases being given hearing dates for 2018. 

“In New York City, there are about two judges whose entire calendar will be devoted to unaccompanied minors,” Abruzzo noted. “A lot of other cases are being pushed back.”

Currently one judge, Loprest, has been assigned the surge docket with other federal immigration judges likely to rotate. 

While the backlog and delayed court dates for current clients is a concern for Brooklyn attorneys, the special circumstance of being a child petitioner in an immigration case without the support of immediate family is on the mind for many practitioners. 

“Usually the juvenile docket is not pushed along so quickly,” David advised. “The children are the cases that should not be moved through so quickly,” Aburzzo said in agreement. “So many of these children do not have parental support in this country and there are ways for them to get assistance if they are allowed to stay longer.”

Delayed deportation may be a saving grace for some of the unaccompanied minors awaiting hearings in New York. The city’s immigration judges are rumored to be the most lenient of any other jurisdiction. “It’s the consensus that New York [immigration] judges are lenient,” Abruzzo said. 

According to data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), New York is the second state with the highest proportion of cases allowing individuals to remain in the country behind Oregon.

“I find the judges very compassionate,” Abruzzo said.  “They are objective but still aware of the facts that will be helpful. It is better for the practitioner to have a judge without a bias against your client.”

Leniency notwithstanding, that the majority of these child have entered the country unaccompanied by an adult lends fear that that the trend will bleed over into the courtroom.  According to TRAC, almost half — or 48 percent — of the children appearing in court to determine whether they should be sent back to their home countries had to appear alone without assistance of an attorney to help them present their case. 

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James has called for local attorneys to provide pro bono or “friend of the court” services to the children immigrants as they prepare for their initial hearings before immigration court. 

“I would do it,” said Brooklyn immigration lawyer Ilona Dzhamgarova. Not all attorneys are as eager.

“I think they deserve representation, but for me to do pro bono doesn’t work for me,” Oscar Jaeger noted. “I charge a fraction of what other immigration attorneys charge so I’m not make much money to begin with.”

Whether through private attorneys donating their time or legal aid organizations pooling their efforts, it is understood that these minors are special cases. As noted by Cheryl David: “There are due process concerns about pushing these cases along [especially] when the child is afraid of going back to their originating country.”  

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