Almost everyone seeking asylum in Los Angeles immigration court has received an order of deportation, under a Biden administration program meant to speed up asylum hearings.
A study by the Immigrants’ Rights Policy Clinic found that 99.1 percent of people in 449 cases completed under the Dedicated Dockets program in Los Angeles ended up with removal orders.
“Through this Docket, the Biden administration is not only denying families seeking asylum their day in court, but also punishing children, some less than a year old, by entering deportation orders that will follow them for the rest of their lives, leaving them vulnerable to deportation without ever receiving a day in court,” Ahilan Arulanantham, faculty co-director for the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law, said in a statement.
Dedicated Dockets was created to ensure a fair, efficient and expedited court hearing process for asylum-seekers coming through the southwest border. The program operates in 11 cities and aims to reduce the time to resolve cases to 300 days, down from an average of 4.5 years.
But the Immigrants Rights Policy Clinic, part of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law, has found that the program has instead left families without legal representation and with a large number of deportation orders issued against children in absentia, among other court process failings.
As many as 70.1 percent of families placed on the Los Angeles Dedicated Docket were subjected to the expedited docket process without lawyers, the group found.
The majority of removal orders were issued in absentia, meaning the deportees were not even in court and not able to argue their case.
Additionally, immigration judges assigned to the Los Angeles Dedicated Docket were found to have higher denial rates than other judges nationally — 90.7 percent compared to 67.6 percent nationwide, the report found.
Approximately 2,410 families are assigned to the docket in Los Angeles, with most being charged with entry without inspection.
Children, who were all part of family units, accounted for almost half of the docket.
Almost half of the in absentia orders were issued against children, the majority under the age of 6 and most of whom had no attorney, according to the report.
"Children have often claims that are stronger than their parents, but children and their parents are lumped together and so one of the most disturbing things is that so many children are deported without ever having a chance," Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA law school professor and faculty co-director at the Center for Immigration Law and Policy, said.
NBC News reached out to the Department of Justice on the report's findings. According to the DOJ, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) doesn't comment on third-party reporting regarding the data.
In November, EOIR Director David Neal had published a memo to increase communication between the office and the legal community to increase interest in pro-bono representation for these kinds of cases.
Dedicated Dockets was designed with families in mind and has been placing parents in proceedings together with their children, consolidating cases, Talia Inlender, deputy director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy, explained.
“When there is no lawyer present to help people navigate the proceedings, the child becomes invisible in that proceeding,” Inlender said. “It’s as though the parent’s case is moving forward and the child is just an appendage to the parents. What that does is that obscures children’s own independent claims for relief.”
Children who have removal orders issued against them are stripped of their appeal rights, increasing the difficulty for them to lawfully return to the U.S. and potentially subjecting them to criminal prosecution for illegal reentry if they try to come back, Inlender added.
More than two-thirds of all cases involved individuals originating from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Colombia.
Variations of Biden's Dedicated Dockets were established previously and known as "Rocket Dockets" in the Obama and Trump administrations, which yielded a similar lack of legal counsel and rates of in absentia removal.
Before the implementation of Dedicated Dockets, pro-bono and low-cost lawyers were already operating at capacity, leaving families with limited time to find legal representation.
Those with lawyers were found to significantly increase their chances for asylum by filing applications and successful change-of-venue motions, and by helping translate documents of evidence for their claims.
In non-accelerated dockets, only 33 percent lacked counsel.
"The cases are being run at an accelerated pace — you're not taking just one person's claim. They're all family cases, they all involve representation of multiple people," Inlender said. "There's just no way to really have a fair hearing in these proceedings without counsel."
Along with the lack of representation, 88.7 of the people on the Dedicated Docket are presumed to speak Spanish as a primary language, a figure that can be misleading since many arriving migrants speak indigenous languages and are not fluent in Spanish.
Notices to appear sent to asylum-seekers were written only in English and provided inaccurate dates and hearing information, according to the report.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents attempted to correct the notices but further confusion ensued: Parents showed up at ICE offices rather than at courtrooms, leaving them open to potential removal in abstentia by judges who presumed they chose not to show up in court.
"We have these cases that people really trying hard and they know what's at stake — they don't have a lawyer, they may not be able to navigate this in English. They have to worry about childcare — so the process is an added punishment," Motomura said. "But it's also one that then lays the foundation for them to get deported sometimes without [them] even knowing that that's happening."
A January report by TRAC Immigration, a nonpartisan database about immigration enforcement, indicates the Immigrants’ Rights Policy Clinic report results are on par with nationwide trends, as asylum-seeking families assigned to Dedicated Dockets across the country are seeing low levels of legal representation, few filings of asylum-seeking applications and substantial deportation orders issued in completed cases.
"Our findings confirmed the worst fears of advocates and what advocates directly told the Biden administration was likely to happen if these Dedicated Dockets were rolled out," Inlender said.
"We're sitting here a year later, and we see that, in fact, those fears have been affirmed," she said.