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Update on Unaccompanied Children and Families (August, 2014)

By Sarah Bronstein, August 2014

 

The issue of unaccompanied children and families arriving at the U.S. - Mexico border continues to be of major concern.  The latest figures issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show thus far in fiscal year 2014 (from October 1, 2013 – July 31, 2014) that 62,998 unaccompanied children have been apprehended along the southern border.  This is a 100 percent increase from fiscal year 2013.  During the same period of time, 62,856 members of families have been apprehended.  This is a 471 percent increase from fiscal year 2013. 

Detention of Unaccompanied Children

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the federal agency responsible for the care and custody of unaccompanied children.  Under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, unaccompanied children must be transferred to ORR custody within 72 hours of their arrest.  For several years, ORR has operated temporary shelters throughout the United States to house children while ORR caseworkers sought to reunify them with family members or family friends in the United States.  In response to the dramatic increase in numbers of children apprehended by CBP, ORR opened three large facilities housed on military bases:  Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland in San Antonio, TX; Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma and Port Hueneme Naval Base in Ventura, California.  ORR announced at the beginning of August that due to slightly decreasing numbers of apprehensions, it would phase out the use of these three facilities over the next eight weeks.  Advocates had raised significant concerns about the conditions in which children were held at these facilities and the difficulty in gaining access by attorneys and legal workers due to security procedures at these military facilities.  There have been reports that ORR plans to open another large facility to house unaccompanied children in the El Paso, Texas area, but those are thus far unconfirmed.

Detention of Families

In a change in policy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun detaining families apprehended at the border, rather than releasing them from custody to appear for removal proceedings at a later date.  ICE opened a family detention center in Artesia, NM in July and on August 1st opened a second family detention center in Karnes City, TX.  Advocates report serious due process concerns regarding the way in which cases are being handled in Artesia.  Concerns have been raised about how credible fear interviews are being conducted.  These interviews determine whether the adult family member will be given the opportunity to have her asylum claim heard before an immigration judge.  Other problem areas include hearings being conducted remotely via video teleconferencing and lack of access to counsel.  Two CLINIC staff members are currently in Artesia assisting with efforts to develop a pro bono representation project there.  We will provide an update on the situation in Artesia in the next issue of the newsletter. 

The Use of “Rocket Dockets”

Another significant development is the implementation of expedited removal proceedings, so-called “rocket dockets,” for unaccompanied children and families who have been recently released from custody.  Rocket dockets have been rolled out in immigration courts across the country during the past few weeks.  Advocates report that children and families are being given as little as three days notice of their court hearing date, severely limiting their ability to find counsel.  Advocates also report continuances (periods of time in between hearings) being granted for very short periods of time – in some instances as little as a week – to find an attorney. 

Expedited hearings for children and families are gaining national attention.  On July 22nd, Dana Leigh Marks, President of the National Association of Immigration Judges, sent a letter to Sen. Harry Reid, U.S. Senate Majority Leader, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, U.S. Senate Minority Leader, expressing serious concerns about immigration judges’ caseloads and the use of expedited procedures in children’s cases.  On August 14th, CLINIC and a number of other Washington, DC area organizations sent a letter to the Immigration Judges in Baltimore, MD, requesting a meeting to express their concerns over the use of rocket dockets.  CLINIC is looking for information to be used for advocacy purposes about how the rocket dockets are being used around the country.  If you have information about the rocket dockets in your area, please contact us at UAC@cliniclegal.org.

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