Last week, thousands of children who crossed the US border alone, illegally, were rushed into the nation’s courts under President Barack Obama’s recent mandate to expedite their deportation cases. In an effort to stanch the flood of unaccompanied child migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, Obama has ordered federal immigration judges to jump-start their cases—whether or not the children have lawyers to represent them. The courts have been slammed. Here is the scene in New York’s federal immigration court at 10:25 Thursday am—multiply it by 62,000.
A slender 12-year-old girl sits before a judge. She wears a ruffled blue dress, a black cardigan and sandals that look brand new. Her long brown hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she clutches her hands tightly in her lap.
She has no parent present. She has no lawyer. She speaks no English. She sits forward in her seat listening intently.
“Good morning. What language do you speak best?” Judge Elizabeth Lamb asks through an interpreter.
“Español,” the girl says. With the interpreter translating, the judge runs through a quick series of questions.
“Please tell me your name.”
“Ana Torres.” (Since her parents were not present to consent to the publication of her real name, Ana Torres is a pseudonym.)
“Ana, my name is Judge Lamb. The woman speaking to you is an interpreter because I can’t speak Spanish. This lady sitting over here is a lawyer for the government. Do you know your address where you live?”
Ana thinks hard and laboriously recites an address.
“When did you move here?”
No one present seems to know many of the details of Ana’s life. Later, I will learn that she had lived with her grandmother in Honduras and was sent—without any family—to travel to the United States where she planned to live with her mother in New York. But “men with guns” (presumably border patrol) stopped her group in Texas, and she was sent to an immigration detention center. She doesn’t know the name of place where she was in Texas, but she was afraid, she tells me later, and “cried a lot.” They kept her for two weeks, Ana says.
“I’m going to give you this blue piece of paper and that’s very important,” Judge Lamb says. “Whenever you move, you have to give me within five days of your move this form with your new address.” The judge explains why. “We sent you this notice to come in and the Post Office returned [the letter]. So that’s why this is very important. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Now who is that gentleman sitting next to you?”
“He’s a brother of the church.”
“Where are your parents?”
“My mother is at home.”
“Home where? In the US?”
“Do you know why she didn’t come with you today?”
“Because she is sick.” (Later, the man from the church will explain that Ana’s mother was afraid to come because she herself is undocumented.)
“And where is your father?”
“I don’t have one.”
“I’m going to speak to your friend here,” the judge says and turns to 38-year-old Alex Guerra, who explains that he knows Ana’s mother from church and that she asked him to come here with Ana.
The judge turns back to Ana. “You don’t have a lawyer, right?”