The scene in a Baltimore immigration courtroom on a late October morning was unusual. Several dozen children of all ages filled the galley benches - from a 5-year-old girl in pigtails to several 17-year-old boys in dress shirts, and all ages in between. Aunts, uncles and guardians filled the seats around them. The judge was in his usual place before the court, but instead of immediately banging the gavel and calling cases, he was addressing the children, patiently explaining the duties of the officials in the courtroom, what the children should expect during their appearance before him, and stressing the importance of education. The judge promised the children a piece of candy after their appearance. As the proceedings began, he called each child by name instead of only calling their immigration numbers.
It was the day before Halloween at the Baltimore immigration court's first children's docket - newly established by the Department of Justice's immigration agency to help make immigration court a less scary and traumatic experience for children. The creation of a day for children only to appear before an immigration judge and the implementation of child-friendly procedures is a huge step forward in improving the care and protection of immigrant children. (The second children's docket took place Friday.)
This is a particularly important change for the more than 8,000 children who come to the U.S. alone each year and end up in immigration proceedings. More than half do not have a lawyer. In immigration court, defendants are not appointed a public defender, even if they are children; they must find a lawyer themselves or face the judge and the government attorney alone. Children who come to the U.S. without a parent or guardian are often fleeing a desperate situation. Some are trying to escape severe abuse or persecution; others have been abandoned by their parents and are trying to find a way to survive.
A number of children come to the U.S. each year as victims of trafficking. Some children are trying to reunite with their parents. Regardless of why they come, many are suffering from trauma from whatever drove them to this country. Without representation, these children are typically unable to make their case for U.S. protection. Even those with viable claims are sent back to their home countries and the harmful situation they fled.
Before the creation of a children's docket day, children in immigration proceedings in Baltimore and other cities were mixed among the adults. Large numbers of adults would sit in a court waiting room until the judge called their immigration number. Children would be interspersed among these adults, often bewildered and scared. The judge would call immigration numbers, working through the many cases on his or her docket in a formal, even intimidating manner, especially for those not familiar with the U.S. court system (or even the language). The judge would hammer the gavel loudly between cases. If a child came for his or her first hearing without an adult or an attorney, the child would likely have a very difficult time understanding what was going on.
Perhaps most importantly for these children, on a normal docket day there is little opportunity to find an attorney or a legal service provider, unless the defendant happens to be approached by one in the waiting room. On the children's docket day, the judge pointed out the pro bono attorneys and free legal service providers in the courtroom and encouraged the children to talk to them if they did not yet have an attorney.
The children's docket day lasted until nearly noon. In each case, the judge encouraged the child to work hard in school, to learn about the United States, and to tell their schoolmates about their home country. Regardless of what happens in your case, the judge said, learn all you can so you can have a good life.
By establishing this children's docket, Baltimore is underscoring what is best about this country and its commitment to the protection of the most vulnerable, particularly children. While these children are in our care, they deserve to be treated fairly and with particular attention - something all children need and deserve.
Wendy Young, who has worked on immigration policy with many advocacy organizations, is founding executive director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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