TIME Immigration

Influx of Child Immigrants Strains Courts in Louisiana

Michael's Journey - Immigration in New Orleans
Attendees listen to speakers at the weekly meeting of "Congreso," or the Congress of Day Laborers. This is one branch of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, New Orleans, Aug. 6, 2014. William Widmer for TIME

The wave of unaccompanied children streaming across the U.S. border has compounded a court crisis, as advocates warn backlogs and a shortage of lawyers will lead to injustice

For the 1,071 unaccompanied minors who have crossed the southwest border this year and ended up in Louisiana, the path to a future in the U.S. runs through a courtroom on the 24th floor of an office tower in the heart of New Orleans.

Here, past the heavy doors and security guards, a rotating detail of judges determines the fate of the immigrant children streaming across the border and into the state. As they arrive in record numbers, the New Orleans Immigration Court is buckling under the strain.

During the first six months of 2014, the court has taken on 450 juvenile immigration cases, according to government records obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). That number puts the court on pace to shatter last year’s total of 540 cases. Three years ago, it had 71.

New Orleans’ struggle is part of a pattern. Nationwide, immigration courts have become choke points in the border crisis. Overburdened and underfunded, they are sagging under the weight of the new arrivals, with enormous case backlogs and a lack of attorneys able to perform work that must often be pro bono, or without charge.

At the end of June, the number of cases pending in U.S. immigration courts had climbed to a record high of 375,503, according to data amassed by TRAC. The largest backlogs are in states with the biggest immigrant populations, such as California and Texas, which have also received the greatest number of unaccompanied minors.

But as stressed as those states are, legal activists say the situation is worse in places where the number of immigrants may not be quite as high, but where there’s a shortage of lawyers able to represent a spiking population.

New Orleans is a prime example. The large number of Honduran immigrants resident here has made the Crescent City a magnet for kids fleeing the skyrocketing violence in the troubled Central American country. Over the past year, few cities have absorbed more unaccompanied kids than New Orleans. Yet the entire state of Louisiana has only about a half-dozen nonprofit immigration lawyers devoted to serving them, says Jennifer Rizzo, national pro bono promotion counsel for Human Rights First.

As a result, children are regularly summoned to complex legal proceedings that will shape their future without any legal representation. At the end of June, New Orleans Immigration Court had a total of 1,216 pending juvenile immigration cases. In 991 of them—81%—the child has no lawyer. Overall, 87% of immigrants detained in the state lack an attorney, according to a study by Human Rights First.

“Things have reached a crisis point,” Rizzo says.

Legal representation may be the single largest factor in determining whether an undocumented immigrant wins the right to remain in the U.S. According to TRAC’s analysis of 100,000 case records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), immigrant children represented by an attorney are deported by presiding judges about half the time. In cases when juveniles went without an attorney, the success rate for sidestepping deportation was just one in 10.

“There’s a likelihood that these kids don’t know how to obtain legal representation, because nobody speaks English,” says Hiroko Kusuda, whose law clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans is one of just three listed service providers in the state. “If they don’t have legal representation, the chances of them getting relief from deportation is close to zilch.”

Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), said in an email that EOIR provides interpreter services for immigrant children for whom English is a challenge. But she acknowledged that some go without a lawyer. “Children are not guaranteed representation in immigration court proceedings, but all respondents have a right to representation at no expense to the government,” Mattingly said, adding that various government initiatives are designed to promote pro bono work.

The small community of immigration lawyers in the New Orleans area wants to help. Along with national advocates, they are scrambling to enlist new recruits. Kathleen Gasparian, an immigration lawyer in Metairie, La., started a program called PB&J: Pro Bono and Juveniles, which recruits pro bono attorneys and matches them with immigrant kids who have recently crossed the southern border and cannot afford legal services. Rizzo recently organized a conference to tackle Louisiana’s crisis in immigration representation, and convenes a monthly working group of local stakeholders. “The immigration court system is broken,” Gasparian says.

The issues were multiplying even before children started arriving. Louisiana has just two immigration courts, and the second, in the small city of Oakdale, more than three hours northwest of New Orleans, handles only detention cases. The backlog of pending cases statewide has soared to 6,703, up from just 732 a decade ago. “Now, you don’t even get your first hearing for a year,” says Ken Mayeaux, a professor at Louisiana State University Law Center in Baton Rouge who runs an immigration clinic for students. The average wait time for pending cases in the EOIR has climbed to 587 days.

Compounding that lengthening backlog, the New Orleans court is without a single devoted judge. Instead, a rotating trio of judges handle the docket, usually commuting from the Oakdale facility. Sometimes cases are decided over video conference.

The lack of a permanent judge is a symptom of a national problem, created by a hiring freeze imposed in 2011 by Attorney General Eric Holder as DOJ sought to cut costs in the teeth of the recession. The hiring freeze was lifted in February, but Mattingly declined to say when a new full-time judge will start at New Orleans immigration court.

On a steamy Thursday morning this month, TIME visited the court, on Canal Street downtown, in an attempt to observe proceedings. There were about six cases on the docket for the day, according to a printed list in the entryway, but two security guards barred this correspondent from entering, citing instructions from the presiding judge.

“In certain cases, including hearings involving credible fear reviews, the hearing is closed to the public unless the alien states for the record that he or she waves that requirement,” Mattingly later wrote in an email. On that day, she added, “there were no open cases.”

TIME Immigration

U.S. Looking to Expand Domestic Air Force to Defend Borders

Border Control Multirole Enforcement Aircraft
A Multirole Enforcement Aircraft gets modified for its border-guarding mission in Hagerstown, Md. James Tourtellotte—U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr

Up to 40 planes sought to help halt “the unlawful movement of people” and for other missions

As tens of thousands of Latin American youngsters stream into the southwestern U.S. illegally, the Department of Homeland Security said Monday that it is seeking up to 40 sophisticated surveillance aircraft to bolster the defense of the nation’s borders.

“Aircraft and aircraft systems shall be capable of operating in diverse environments, to include the hot and arid conditions of the southwest border region, the hot and humid conditions of the southeast border region and the cold conditions of the northern border region,” says the request for information posted by the Customs and Border Protection Office, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The government wants the plane’s sensors to be able to detect a person from seven miles away, and “shall be able to classify the target” from two miles away. It also should be able to detect a small airplane like a Cessna 172 from 17 miles, and a 30-foot boat from 29 miles.

The border-protection agency has been beefing up its air force in recent years, after flying aging DHC-8 and PC-12 aircraft and 26 twin-engine planes that it says it had “inherited from a variety of sources.” In 2009, the agency ordered an initial lot of 10 Multirole Enforcement Aircraft—specially-modified Beechcraft Super King Air 350ERs—to begin replacing these planes.

The seven delivered to date are flying out of San Diego, Calif., and Jacksonville, Fla. The $20 million planes are outfitted with global positioning systems, weather radar, wide-area air and marine surveillance and search radar, ground-moving target indicator, digital video and audio recorders and an electro-optical/infrared camera, which allows for optimal surveillance capability during day or night. The planes have a maximum speed of 310 miles an hour, a maximum range of 1,850 miles and can fly for five hours. It carries a crew of two pilots and two sensor operators.

The agency says it is looking to buy 40 more “newly built, commercially produced, normal category, FAA-certified multi-engine turboprop/fan” aircraft. These additional Multirole Enforcement Aircraft would be used to fill “a growing requirement to support law enforcement and emergency response operations with sensor-equipped surveillance aircraft capable of collecting, recording and transmitting real-time imagery to tactical and strategic command and control coordination centers,” the Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine says. “This aircraft will be used primarily for maritime, air and land surveillance and interdiction missions and logistical transportation of cargo and people.”

The agency says its roster of 1,200 agents “protects the American people and the nation’s critical infrastructure through the coordinated use of integrated air and marine forces to detect, interdict and prevent acts of terrorism and the unlawful movement of people, illegal drugs and other contraband toward or across the borders of the United States.” In 2013, the agency said its airplanes played a role in the seizure of of more than a million pounds of marijuana, 150,000 pounds of cocaine, $25 million in cash, 2,194 weapons, and in the apprehension of 63,562 undocumented aliens.

TIME Immigration

Rick Perry Tells Texas State Police to Boost Border Security

Texas Governor Rick Perry
Rick Perry, governor of Texas, speaks at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Texas can’t afford to wait for Washington to act on this crisis and we will not sit idly by while the safety and security of our citizens are threatened"

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders called Wednesday evening for a “surge” in law enforcement along the border, announcing plans to inject $1.3 million more into the effort every week in response to a recent influx of illegal crossings.

“Texas can’t afford to wait for Washington to act on this crisis and we will not sit idly by while the safety and security of our citizens are threatened,” Republican Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement.

The intensified security operations will be in effect at least through the end of the year, and will replicate a program last fall targeting human and drug trafficking. Perry and fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. David Dewhust and Texas State House Speaker Joe Straus called for the enhanced security measures in an open letter to the head of the Texas Dept. of Public Safety.

The governor’s statement cited federal numbers detailing a spike in border crossings and blamed the federal government for not doing enough to secure the border.

“Until the federal government fulfills its duty, it falls on the State of Texas to address those obligations,” the state leaders said in the joint letter to the director of the Texas DPS.

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