- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Seated at the defense table in U.S. Immigration Court in Philadelphia, the 10-year-old looked down at his feet, which barely reached the floor. Coal-eyed, he resembled a Latino Dennis the Menace, with a “fauxhawk” instead of a cowlick and clad in a shirt that read:

Last name: Maker.

First name: Trouble.

Having entered the U.S. illegally eight months ago, the boy, Carlos, was arrested on the Texas border, given a notice to appear in court to face deportation, and sent to live with his mother in Kensington while his case plays out. As with other juveniles in this article, The Inquirer agreed to use only his first name.

Born in Honduras, Carlos is among the tens of thousands of children under 18 who crossed the border illegally in the last year and now face expulsion. More than 500 await their fate in Pennsylvania. More than 2,000 are in New Jersey. Most are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The government does not restrict placements based on the immigration status of their parents or other sponsors.

On the southwest border of the United States, arrests of children traveling without a parent or guardian have more than quadrupled in a year - from 14,855 in fiscal 2013 to 68,445 this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In a daylong court session this month, Judge Steven Morley, presiding at the federal building at Ninth and Market Streets, heard Carlos’ case and 90 similar ones.

Nervous immigrants, mostly teenage boys and a few girls, packed the three long benches of the court gallery. Most were joined by a relative, friend, or guardian. At times, there was standing room only.

Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia accompanied Jacqueline, 14, who arrived six months ago from El Salvador, lives with her mother in Philadelphia now, and attends eighth grade.

Rita Paez, executive director of Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos, a nonprofit support group in Pottstown, came with a boy, Gemeria, and a girl, Irma. Both are 16 and from Guatemala. Irma is living with an adult brother; Gemeria with an uncle.

Grinding methodically through the docket, Morley devoted three or four minutes to each case, assessing trial readiness and granting continuances into March, when he will hear the merits of each case.

“I like your shirt,” the smiling judge told Carlos. Court interpreter Oscar Zambrano repeated the words in Spanish. A beat later, after Carlos absorbed the translation, he smiled too, as did the family friend, a woman, who sat beside him.

With no objection from Department of Homeland Security assistant prosecutor Joseph Scott, Morley continued Carlos’ case for five months so it can be prepared for trial. He is represented by Elizabeth Yaeger of HIAS Pennsylvania, which provides legal services and other support for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

“These children enter on their own, it’s true,” said HIAS executive director Judith Bernstein-Baker. “But they only do it because they face life-threatening conditions at home.”

Fleeing homelands

Advocates for the young immigrants say many are fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse, and entrenched deprivation in their homelands. Depending on the circumstances, those can be reasons to grant them legal status in the United States.

Typically, the children are transferred to the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which releases them to sponsors - usually family members - who may or may not be legal residents of the United States.

From January through the end of August, 513 children were released to homes in Pennsylvania, 2,171 in New Jersey, and 168 in Delaware.

Studies show children with lawyers get more favorable outcomes in court, so local public-interest groups, including HIAS, and La Comunidad Hispana, in Chester County, are recruiting and training lawyers to represent them.

Last month, HIAS took the lead at a daylong session on defense strategies in Philadelphia attended by about 50 lawyers interested in representing the children at no or low cost.

Among the topics covered was Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a pathway to lawful residency created by Congress for undocumented children who are “abused, neglected, or abandoned.” The process begins with an adjudication of dependency in family court.

John Winicov, a lawyer with La Comunidad Hispana’s legal assistance program, said he recently got the court to issue findings of dependency to halt the removal of three unrelated 17-year-old boys from Guatemala who were “abandoned by parents, abused, neglected, and told to leave.”

The three, living now with brothers and uncles, are enrolled in school and doing well, Winicov said.

This month, more than a dozen mayors, including Mayor Nutter, signed a Welcoming America open letter that pledged support for Central American children seeking refuge in the United States.

Based in Decatur, Ga., Welcoming America describes its mission as helping native-born Americans understand and appreciate their immigrant neighbors. Its founder and executive director, David Lubell, grew up in Lower Merion.

‘I am sad’

Back in Morley’s blue-carpeted courtroom, the parade of cases continued.

Seeing lawyer Sondra Miller-Wein, who often appears before him, Morley asked, “How are you today, Ms. Miller-Wein?”

“Sad, your honor,” she replied, gesturing to the packed gallery. “When I look at this courtroom, I am sad.”

Getting down to business, she said her client, who lives with an uncle in Norristown, will apply for SIJS but hasn’t filed yet. Morley continued the case.

By the end of the day, which began at 8:45 a.m. and adjourned at 5:18 p.m., Morley had processed the entire caseload.

Of the 91 scheduled matters, 25 were no-shows, although paperwork with multiple addresses suggested to Morley at least some may not have received proper notice of the hearing date. The remaining dozen or so immigrants he ordered deported in absentia.

As the last of the cases were processed, a second law clerk joined the courtroom so the first clerk could leave for an appointment.

“How are you?” asked Morley, welcoming the new clerk.

“Still kicking,” she said, looking weary. “Just not high.”





Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com

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