- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - A federal immigration judge says his priority when dealing with traumatized children facing deportation is to create a kinder, gentler courtroom.

New York’s assistant chief immigrant judge, Robert Weisel, told a City Council hearing Monday that he takes off his black robes and speaks to young children from the bench in a more casual tone.

“Our objective is to lower the level of anxiety, lower the level of fear, because after all, when you see someone in a black robe, it’s very scary,” the judge said.

Weisel testified before the council’s Committee on Immigration, which is assessing the needs of children smuggled into the United States from Central America. The cases of more than 1,100 of them are pending before New York City immigration judges. Some face deportation.

Almost $2 million was recently allocated to cover the children’s legal expenses - $1 million from the city and $900,000 in private funds.

New York is the nation’s second leading state - after Texas - in receiving these children, some as young as 5.

Officials say many of them appear in court for the first time with no legal representation.

A coalition of not-for-profit groups preparing attorneys for the task include the New York Law School-based Safe Passage Project, which has trained nearly 800 lawyers in the past few months to work with the often anxious, vulnerable young refugees appearing alone before judges in a daily docket processing the cases.

“The question we face now is how will we treat these children relocating to New York state?” asks project founder and law professor Lenni Benson, who urges legislators to provide additional social workers and educators to integrate the youths into American society.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said at Monday’s hearing that on a recent visit to a courtroom, she was distressed to see “traumatized children standing before a judge without a lawyer.”

The city has formed a task force in response to the surging population of youths fleeing violent gangs, poverty and drug cartels in their countries.

More than 60,000 children were taken into custody between October of last year and August 2014 crossing the U.S. border, most from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Almost 5,000 are in New York state, with thousands more expected in the coming months.

Officials said about 90 percent of those entering New York state are reuniting with parents or relatives who have often not seen them in years.

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