NEW YORK, NY -- They're here, finally, but will they get to stay? That's the life-changing question hanging over the heads of tens of thousands of young migrants who have crossed the border into the U.S.
Based on a day spent observing an immigration court in New York City, most of them can breathe a little easier: No one appears to be ordered out of the country any time soon.
Fifteen year-old Diego (not his real name) had his first hearing before a judge last week. He was with dozens of young people from mostly Central America crowded into an immigration court to fight their potential deportations. Twice a month in New York the so-called juvenile docket sees as many as 50 children or more who have fled to the U.S. hoping to stay here.
Diego arrived here in March after a two-and-a-half month journey alone from Peru. Diego’s mother died when he was just 5. He explained that he fled to America because his father had abused and then abandoned him.
“I was just out in the streets all the time,” he said, trying to avoid his father and the gang violence ravaging his neighborhood.
Now he lives in New York with a close family friend. “It’s safe and quiet here,” he said.
A small -- and very busy -- group of lawyers, most working for free, mill around the courthouse hoping to help the kids: introducing themselves, gathering basic information about their new clients in the hallways, quickly, before facing Judge Douglas Schoppert, one of several immigration judges presiding over these cases.
On this morning, most appearances lasted only a matter of minutes. After some brief judicial banter, and official business, Schoppert instructed just about every defendant to try to find a lawyer, and report back to court in February. He essentially put the “removal process,” on hold, and allowed these young migrants to get on with their new lives in America.
Diego’s attorney Merrill Clark was optimistic about his future. “He’s going to be legalized,” Clark insisted. “I haven’t lost a case like this one yet.”
Many of these minors are just a few months ahead in the process of those streaming across the border today. The Obama administration now estimates as many as 90,000 unaccompanied minors could be apprehended by the end of the fiscal year in September, and insists most of them will be sent home. But the administration also has conceded that less than 2000 child migrants are deported every year.
“The process is designed to ensure the children aren't sent back to harm,” said attorney Bryan Johnson, pausing briefly before rushing off to handle yet another case.
Some of the parents reunited with their children were in court. Tanya Meza's 8 and 9-year-old daughters arrived in the U.S. from Nicaragua last June, traveling together without a guardian. Tanya, who came here 6 years ago, had left the kids with grandparents. She’s still trying to find a lawyer who she can afford, and was relieved that a case that could end with her children being sent away had been pushed forward several months.
“They keep giving us a next date and a next date,” she said before hurrying off with her 3 children, the youngest a boy, just 5, who is the only American citizen in the family.
Immigration advocates insist many of the young people who reach New York, and other cities across America, will be here for many years, if not permanently. Lawyers say they have had success seeking one remedy in particular. It’s called a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa, or an SIJ. The SIJ falls under the laws designed to protect child victims of human trafficking, specifically, children who have been “abused, abandoned or neglected.” And advocates insist that’s exactly what’s happened to many of the minors crossing the border from Central America.
“We’re talking about desperate children,” said Eve Stotland, of The Door, a New York based non-profit aimed at empowering young people, where the legal caseload has been increasing with the surge of juveniles across the border.
“We've seen a lot of young people who've suffered horrific domestic violence," Stotland said. “If we send them back, they’ll probably try to come again…because it’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of life and death.” She estimates the lawyers with The Door's legal services team win a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa in 80 to 90% of their cases.
Some lawyers claim the very act of a parent allowing a child to make the extremely dangerous trek from Central America, or sending them on their way, should be enough to make that child eligible to stay.
Yet, organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to reduce the number of immigrants settling in the U.S., insist the immigration laws dealing with minors are being exploited and too many juveniles are using them to stay in the country.
“My guess is they’re all going to stay and not go anywhere,” said communications director Marguerite Telford. In an analysis of deportations including those of minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the Center found that between 2008 and 2013 the number of removals had declined significantly.
“Resettling them throughout the U.S. does not bode well for them going home,” Telford said.
Indeed, after their hearings, the kids passing through Judge Schoppert's court last week were mostly on their way back to homes in the U.S.-- not south of the border. A court officer sat at a table with dozens of case files filling up what looked like a grocery cart. A volunteer defense attorney sat at a table opposite with a translator. One by one the young people had their moments.
“Hope you enjoy the summer,” the judge often said after official business was done, as he continued the cases for months to come.
Diego said he plans to start 10th grade in September. He said he likes math and hopes someday to become a chemical engineer. His attorney has big plans for him, too.
“He will become a permanent resident and 5 years after that he can become a citizen,” Merrill Clark predicted. In other words, like many others young people crossing the border, he’s likely here to stay.