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The case of an 11-year-old girl who was ordered deported alone is drawing attention to overburdened immigration courts and the consequences of any errors, as the courts try to keep up with the administration's political priorities while juggling increased and rearranged caseloads.
A federal immigration judge in Houston signed a deportation order for Laura Maradiaga-Alvarado, originally from El Salvador, on March 12.
In response to a request from her attorney Silvia Mintz — and the day after a news conference in Houston by advocates and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas — the judge ordered a new hearing for the girl on May 20, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency of the Department of Justice, and Mintz.
"The fact the case has been reopened so quickly shows the willingness of the court to rectify the clerical mistake that happened," Mintz told NBC News on Tuesday evening.
The decision to deport Laura had drawn outrage and even prompted angry tweets from Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.
“Yep. The Nazis enforced their laws as well. You don’t separate children from their families! Ever!” he said in a series of tweets.
The deportation order has been attributed to a mistake made after a hearing scheduled in February for the girl, her mother and her sister was delayed by the government shutdown.
Laura was with her mother and sister at the court for the rescheduled hearing March 12, but the family was told by a translator that Laura's name was not on the docket. The subsequent deportation order erroneously stated that Laura was not present at the hearing and that no good reason was given for why she was not there.
Laura's mother, Dora Alvarado, only learned that Laura had been ordered deported because of another mistake. She was notified on March 12 about a hearing that was scheduled for March 9. But Alvarado mistakenly thought the court wanted her to show up April 9 instead.
She waited at court all day on April 9 and was never called. She returned the next day, and that's when she found out her daughter had been ordered deported, Mintz said.
An older daughter went to a high school counselor with the order to have it explained and the counselor put the family in touch with the immigration advocacy group FIEL Houston.
"Those mistakes shouldn't happen," Mintz said. "Imagine if she hadn't shown up and figured it out. I worry about all the other people who have suffered some kind of mistake from court and don’t know how to seek help."
Court officials haven't offered an explanation for the error. But Mintz said she thinks the mistake is the product of an overworked staff and an overload of cases that are now typical of the immigration courts.
“This case fell through the cracks somewhere after the government shutdown,” Mintz said Tuesday.
The family is seeking asylum after Laura's father was killed in El Salvador. Another family member also was killed and one died while crossing the border at Piedras Negras, Mexico. Mintz did not have details on the deaths.
Immigration courts have been burdened for years, but the 34-day government shutdown that began Dec. 21, 2018 — the longest in U.S. history — made things worse.
"It's understandable because thousands of cases had to be rescheduled, so of course mistakes were going to happen,” Mintz said. “But this shows how a mistake, ill-intentioned or not, can cause devastation in a family and cause separation of a family.”
Cesar Espinosa, a spokesman for FIEL Houston, which assisted Laura and her family in finding legal help, said that since Laura's case got media attention, attorneys have been contacting the group to share court mistakes that have affected their clients.
Amber Gracia, an attorney with Naimeh Salem & Associates in Houston, said she's seen an uptick in court errors since the start of the Trump administration.
She attends court three times a week and some type of issue stemming from a mistake arises at least once. She was in court Tuesday, the day she spoke to NBC News in a phone interview, and someone was in the courtroom for a scheduled hearing but was not listed on the docket.
Shutdown exacerbated an overburdened system
Gracia said she has been getting notices to appear in immigration court intended for other attorneys or for people without an attorney. One court sent her a notice late last year denying an immigrant's asylum request and the person only had 30 days to respond. By the time she'd gotten the notice, at least three days had passed. The person got lucky and was able to find her through the court, Gracia said.
Aside from mistakes, the rescheduling of hearings during the shutdown has upended lives. Gracia said a client was about to get her final hearing for her marriage-based green card and was looking forward to being able to see her family after 10 years apart. But because of the shutdown, her hearing was rescheduled — for three years later.
"We can ask the court to move forward, but that's up to the court and now it's swamped with an overburdened docket as it is," Gracia said.
Long before the shutdown, the American Bar Association had been calling for reforms because of the court's backlogs and woeful lack of resources.
The same issues identified then persist nearly a decade later: inadequate staffing, training and hiring; growing backlogs; inconsistent decision patterns among judges, particularly in asylum cases, and adoption of video-conference technology that impedes fair hearings.
The situation, it said, has been exacerbated by years of congressional inaction while enforcement has increased under the Trump administration.
Some 855,000 immigration cases were pending as of Feb. 28, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University, which gathers and publishes judicial system data. That’s more than 300,000 that were pending at the end of January 2017, when President Donald Trump took office.
Congress increased funding to add more judges but failed to provide staff for many of them, said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, a voluntary group.
Many judges don't have courtrooms and either move from room to room or work at adjudication centers where they hold hearings via teleconference. Those systems can disrupt continuity in dockets. Many judges also lack law clerks, translators and support staff. Courts have backlogs of 5,000 cases with hearings scheduled years in advance that they have to reshuffle as the administration changes what cases it wants to be given priority, Tabaddor said.
"They don't consider us a court or judges. They see us as some sort of factory or widget. They keep thinking they can keep interchanging the widget for other parts," she said.
Jackson Lee, who plans to reintroduce legislation to expand and better staff immigration courts, said Laura’s case should be a wake-up call for immigration courts, their operational resources and the political influence of the administration on the system itself.
She questioned whether judges are getting the right information on cases.
“Whether or not you sign the order, do you know it is an 11-year-old?” Jackson Lee asked.
“We don’t know if there are other cases that never came to light of children being deported,” she said. “There has to be a question of, what is going on in these courts?”