NY DAILY NEWS
BY ERICA PEARSON
The defendant toddled into the immigration courtroom, clutching his grandma’s hand.
He didn’t cry as his grandma lifted him up and placed him on a chair – his feet in little black sneakers sticking straight out – to face Judge Patricia Rohan on the 12th floor of Manhattan’s 26 Federal Plaza.
“How old is he?” the judge asked his grandma.
“Three,” she said.
The little boy, named Ian, was one of dozens of young immigration defendants who saw Judge Rohan during a juvenile docket day – a separate court calendar set aside only for kids – at New York Immigration Court this month.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutor Carol Moore sat silent during most of the proceedings.
Children who are caught trying to cross the border alone are usually shuttled either to foster homes or to stay with relatives here in the U.S., who are often also undocumented. Many end up with family in New York – but must face a judge to fight deportation.
Some manage to stay legally, often gaining asylum or a special green card for abused or abandoned kids.
Three-year-old Ian, who has a sweet, round face and a calm disposition, is in deportation proceedings after being caught crossing the border at Naco, Ariz. – his mom decided to go by foot but sent Ian with two smugglers in a car because she thought it would be safer. Ian told the truth when a border agent asked him if the woman in the car was his mom, according to his grandmother, Cristina, who asked to use their first names only.
His mom made it through undetected and is hoping the government will allow Ian to stay with the rest of the family in Queens, the boy’s grandma said.
“He doesn’t cry, but he’s afraid I’m going to turn him in to the police,” she said.
Lawyers are not appointed to kids or adults in immigration court, but New York judges have coordinated with pro-bono attorneys and advocacy groups to try to ensure that kids here don’t have to go before a judge alone.
On the day that Ian was in court, a New York Law School initiative called Safe Passage set up in the ceremonial courtroom. Volunteer lawyers and law students gave intake interviews to everyone looking for free representation – setting up a craft table in the back with crayons and stickers for the youngest defendants.
Before Ian and his grandma saw the judge, attorney Sandra Nichols, who volunteers every month with Safe Passage, asked Cristina a series of questions to determine whether the little boy might qualify to stay.
“We’re going to ask the judge for more time for you,” Nichols told her. The judge later agreed to put off the little boy’s case until September.
Ian stayed calm throughout his day in court, offering to shake hands with lawyers who approached him.
Over 12% of the New York Immigration Court’s docket – more than 6,000 cases – involve juveniles, according to Safe Passage founder Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School. Juvenile docket days happen as often as five times a month.
“Why is this the American justice system?” Benson asked – questioning why Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutes immigration offenders who are so young.
Ian, who was born in Tlaxcala, Mexico, was the youngest immigration defendant in court that day – but the judge also saw a 9-year-old and scores of teens.
A 10-year-old from Honduras named Mario who is seeking asylum appeared, as did 15-year-old Cindy from El Salvador, sitting before the judge in a purple sweatshirt, blue and white clips in her hair, her uncle by her side. She is hoping to get special immigrant juvenile status, a program for kids who have been abused, abandoned by one or more parent, or neglected.
Most of the courtroom scenes reflected what has become an epidemic of children – largely from Central America – sneaking over the border on their own.
Many say they are fleeing the region’s rising poverty and violence – often escaping to avoid gang recruitment or after gangs killed their family.
The numbers of children crossing the border without adults have spiked so dramatically that the federal department of Health and Human Services estimates about 60,000 will enter the country in 2014, more than an 800% jump from 6,560 in 2011.
Border officials usually repatriate Mexican children who are caught alone, but those from farther away, who cannot be sent home within 72 hours, are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In a February report, advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense and the University of California Hastings College of the Law called on the government to appoint attorneys to minors in immigration court, and ease up asylum rules so that kids’ special needs are met. Most children who appear before immigration judges are not represented by a lawyer, the report found.
About 40% of minors apprehended by immigration officials are identified by the feds as eligible for legal immigration status, according to a 2012 study by Manhattan non-profit Vera Institute of Justice.
“Without a lawyer, these kids could be deported,” said attorney Martin Rothstein, who volunteers with Safe Passage.
BY ERICA PEARSON