Expedited Hearings For Migrant Children Raise Concerns

The Department of Justice is speeding up court hearings for immigrant kids who have come to the U.S. in record numbers. Lawyers and immigration judges say the move undermines due process and will lead to further delays in already clogged courts. The ACLU earlier filed a suit over lack of representation.

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As Congress grapples with what to do about the surge of young migrants crossing the border, the Obama administration has taken steps to accelerate the legal process they go through. Typically, it can take up to a year or more to get a hearing. Now, the administration is instructing immigration courts to hear cases within 21 days. Lawyers and judges in the system say expedited hearings undermine due process and will lead to more delays.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Angel Rac is a construction worker in Virginia. He left his native Guatemala 11 years ago to find work in the United States, leaving behind two young daughters.

ANGEL RAC: (Spanish spoken).

GONZALES: It isn't easy to leave your children when they're so young, he says, and to watch them grow up only through Skype.

His daughters are now 13 and 15. Earlier this year, they fled Guatemala after drug traffickers killed their uncle and threatened them too. In early June they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. After a brief stay in a refugee resettlement center in Los Angeles they joined their father in Virginia, with the understanding that they had a court date in September. So Rac was stunned to receive a letter this past Saturday ordering his daughters to appear in immigration court in Los Angeles on Monday. That's right - across the country in less than 48 hours.

RAC: (Spanish spoken).

GONZALES: I was panicked, he says, how could we make that trip on such short notice?

Fortunately for Rac he already had an immigration attorney. That attorney arranged to have his daughters' case transferred to Virginia. The attorney, Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, says, he would like to think his client's expedited two day notice was a mistake, but he can't be sure.

SIMON SANDOVAL-MOSHENBERG: The core of due process is notice and opportunity to be heard. Well, 48 hours notice is not sufficient notice to be heard.

GONZALES: The case is part of a recent move by the administration to fast-track court hearings for unaccompanied minors and adults apprehended at the border with children. The administration has been under pressure to curb the unprecedented number of children crossing the southern border. Nearly 60,000 minors have been detained since October. Generally, those children would get a hearing in about a year. Now those cases will be heard within 21 days, according to a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, Kathryn Mattingly. That change in policy has not been posted on the office's website and Mattingly declined to be interviewed.

Across the country immigration lawyers are saying, the expedited hearings could backfire.

SANDOVAL-MOSHENBERG: And that is a huge problem.

GONZALES: Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg.

SANDOVAL-MOSHENBERG: You can't get a nonprofit immigration attorney on a two week turnaround. Usually, you can't even get one on a two month turnaround.

GONZALES: Sandoval-Moshenberg and other immigration lawyers say, it's virtually impossible for minors who know little or no English to represent themselves in an immigration court. Representation is at the heart of a recent ACLU lawsuit filed against the government for failing to provide the minors with legal help. is Dana Leigh Marks is the president of the National Association of Judges. She says expedited hearings could have other ramifications.

DANA LEIGH MARKS: If a case moves through the process too quickly, people may feel that their rights have been impinged upon. It's going to lead to more appeals of individual cases, which is just going to bog down the system.

GONZALES: Marks says, the legal system already is stretched to its limits. 375,000 cases are waiting to be heard by only 228 immigration judges around the country. The Obama administration has proposed hiring more immigration judges and providing legal help to some minors. But his request is hung up in Congress.

Richard Gonzales. NPR News, San Francisco.

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