Courtrooms are hard places. Especially Immigration Court on the border in Harlingen, Texas which yesterday was filled with about 30 children, Chuck Scofield, Monica Gonzales and me. The kids, ages 4 to 17, came to the U.S. on their own, as unaccompanied minors and have no one with them except the pro bono lawyers for which Share Our Strength and others help pay. (Thank you for the work you do all year that made that possible!)
Three hundred such kids cross each week, every week. Most of them immediately and voluntarily turn themselves into Customs and Border Patrol. Then they are placed in detention for an average of 55 days. Apparently, what they are coming from is worse, which is why they keep coming and seeking asylum. Their short-term goal is reunification with a family member or sponsor somewhere in the U.S., and to have their case transferred to that somewhere.
The first four processed are teenage siblings. Their mother is in Italy. Their fathers can’t be reached. No one seems to know more than that. For another child who doesn’t speak English or Spanish the judge uses an audio system to dial the number of InterpreTalk which offers interpretation services for whatever language is specified. But they can’t find anyone who speaks K’iche, a Maya language of Guatemala, and put the judge on hold while the notes of romantic jazz piano incongruously fill the courtroom instead.
Chuck, Monica, and I observe from the back row and were doing okay until four year-old Gaudi, in pigtails and with juice box and coloring book is called to walk through the gate to sit before Judge Delia Gonzalez, formerly a Dept. of Justice prosecutor of such cases.
All of the children we saw were treated fairly, respectfully and with due process. All were granted continuances of between 30 to180 days to find a lawyer or be reunified with a sponsor or family member. That is a good thing except for the few who are days away from turning 18 and will be transferred to adult detention facilities instead.
The family separations earlier this summer that affected more than 2000 kids were the most visible and horrific part of the immigration crisis. Equally disturbing is the scale of suffering that is business as usual here. ProBAR is the largest provider of legal services to unaccompanied minors in the country. Our grant to support their work is another of many which we can be proud. The long odds faced by these most vulnerable kids are a little less long because of Share Our Strength.