The “Rocket Docket” and humanitarian crisis at the border

Photo: Jennifer Whitney/New York Times
Photo: Jennifer Whitney/New York Times

What it is:

The “rocket docket” is fast-tracked removal hearings for minors who have crossed the border on their own (“Unaccompanied Alien Children” or “UACs”), and families, mostly comprised of women and their minor children.

Why you need to know:

This humanitarian crisis is being responded to with potential due process violations, further clogging of the court, and reports of human rights abuses taking place at detention centers within our borders. This is not a sound policy for the U.S.

What you can do:

Donate to non-profit organizations who provide basic needs and housing for these refugees, and/or donate to legal organizations to provide stipends for attorneys who take pro bono cases.

The “rocket docket” at the Immigration Courts are fast-tracked removal proceedings (more commonly known as “deportation proceedings”) for UACs and families. In recent years, there has been a surge of unaccompanied minors, as well as women and their children, escaping the gang and drug cartel violence of the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as well as Mexico. What has been happening is that people are either coming with their children, or sending their children alone, on treacherous journeys from their countries to the U.S. to escape being killed. The journey they go through to get here is unimaginable and unfathomable. Yet they leave because they have often been harmed themselves and have relatives who have been killed. This particular wave of people is not coming for welfare or to send their children to public school – they are coming to escape violence and for sheer survival.

I recently volunteered as a pro bono attorney at a couple of initial master calendar hearings. This is where the immigration judge meets with the people in court to find out what relief they might be available for and to set their case for an individual hearing. I’d done this before for normal dockets. Until volunteering recently, everything about the crisis was somewhat academic to me, even though I had been wanting to help. I had attended some trainings to understand what was happening and how best to help children, who are difficult to represent because they cannot articulate and do not know how to process what has happened to them. However, that is why it is so important to protect them and give them a voice. There are so many cases on this docket that there were two of us volunteer attorneys there. I had to start with doing initial intake and screening so that I can refer these cases to non-profit groups who may be able to help them. These groups, needless to say, are as overwhelmed as the court system, maybe more. Because of the time constraints of having so many people in court and needing to assist all of them, I could not go in-depth into each of their cases. However, the story was the same countless times. All were escaping horrible violence, had survived a great deal, and wanted to protect their children and take them out of that situation. Many of the people from Mexico were from the Michoacan region, which is supposed to be especially violent. I assisted with the family docket, and can’t imagine what it would be like to assist with the juvenile docket. I was told there was an unaccompanied child who was four years old.

At court, the room was filled with mostly mothers and children. Some women breastfed their babies. A couple of the women had blank looks on their faces. It wasn’t boredom. You can tell when someone has been through trauma when she gets that distant, unemotional look on her face. I saw the trauma. I will say that the immigration judge, especially the first day I was there, was exceptionally caring and gentle while being efficient and maintaining the decorum of the courtroom. It is not any judge’s fault that this is happening, rather, it is the system.

Currently, I am debating whether or not to take one asylum case pro bono (actually two cases – for a mother and child). It is not as easy as it sounds. With asylum cases, it can take four or five hour-long sessions – at least – to get a good detailed declaration in support of the application.   It can take longer with children, who may change details and not be able to express themselves. The applications themselves are often thick and filed in triplicate, with bibliographies for accompanying articles taking hours to do. I also don’t take representing someone in court lightly and am extremely selective about it. This is because once I notify the court that I am the representative, I cannot withdraw my representation unless the judge allows me to and I can be stuck in court proceedings for several years. With this new rocket docket, I haven’t yet grocked how the new timeframe is going to apply to these cases.

However, it’s important that these children and families have attorneys, and more lawyers are needed to assist with the border crisis. An immigration judge states that 90% lose their potentially winnable cases because they do not have an immigration attorney. Immigration law is one of the most complex, counter-intuitive laws aside from tax law. I have heard through the immigration lawyer community grapevine that the Obama administration is creating a legal group through justice AmeriCorps. However, the rate of pay for these attorneys is $20,000 for one year with an education stipend. That is less than the minimum wage here in San Francisco and is unlivable. Also, this is more of a training program; while the new attorney may be brilliant, he or she may not understand the nuances of immigration law as much as a seasoned attorney. Alternatively, legal groups are creating stipends for attorneys to take be able to take on pro bono cases. This would be especially helpful for solo or small firm attorneys who do not have a lot of resources or support system to take on time-intensive cases for free. I am trying to find out if and where such programs exist. If not, maybe I need to create one – not for me, of course.

Lawyers, even non-immigration lawyers, can take on these refugee cases pro bono. Non-profit groups are providing trainings and support for these types of cases. There is an overwhelming need for legal help. Immigration lawyers, through the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), have also been volunteering their time at the Artesia Detention Center in New Mexico, and more are needed. The public can help by donating to non-profits providing stipends for attorneys, and directly to organizations helping these families. There have been reports of human rights abuses at these detention centers, so the more watchdogs that can be sent there to assist, and the faster children and families can be relocated, the better.

This is particularly true because the consequence of these children and families losing their cases is that they will be deported back to the countries they are trying to escape. There is also a fundamental lack of due process as it is “patently unfair to force children to defend themselves alone.” An English-speaking adult has little chance of winning a case in the immigration court without an attorney, much less a child.

By Grace Alano.  Grace Alano is an immigration attorney at The Law Offices of Grace R. Alano in San Francisco, CA. Find Grace Alano on Google+

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