Migrants Jam LA Courtroom For Deportation Hearing

A critique of America's immigration policy is that people ordered to immigration court often don't show up. Steve Inskeep went to an immigration court in Los Angeles to see if that narrative is true.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Steve has been reporting on immigration while spending some time in Los Angeles. And in particularly, he's been focusing on the underage migrants who have crossed the border in recent months. And, Steve, you found the story to be sharply different than what we've been commonly hearing. And you sort of got that feel at an immigration court. Why did you go there?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Well, this is a court for young people facing deportation, and I went there to check out a big part of the public narrative of these thousands of kids who crossed the border. The narrative says these young people from Central America come to the United States. They may get arrested. They may turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. They are released to parents or guardians somewhere in the U.S. And that they'll never be seen again. This is how Senator Jeff Flake, to give one example, put it last month on the PBS NewsHour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: What the record shows is they are told to appear later in court where their case will be adjudicated. But 90 percent of them - 90 percent - do not then show up in court later.

INSKEEP: Flagrant violation of the law - that's the story. It's widely presumed people won't show up for the deportation hearing. And why would they? But then I kept hearing, David, about people at deportation hearings.

GREENE: And so you went to one. And did young people actually show up?

INSKEEP: They certainly did on this day. It was a very crowded courtroom - very small courtroom in Los Angeles - kind of very plain public building, Department of Justice logo on the wall. And so many people came to this tiny courtroom that many of them had to wait their turn out in the hall. There were 25 juveniles who'd been summoned to court on that day - 21 of the 25 did show up. They weren't in handcuffs. They were out in society. They're with their moms or dads or uncles or cousins. And they came.

GREENE: Well, Senator Flake said he was looking at the record that shows that very few were showing up. I mean, what makes you think that what you were seeing there is representative of what's happening broadly?

INSKEEP: Well, arguably, it is representative. People in the court system said it does vary from day to day. You might have fewer people show up on different days. But the American Immigration Counsel used federal court statistics and found that when juveniles have a lawyer, more than 90 percent, according to their counter, showing up for hearings. Now many kids do miss hearings when they do not have a lawyer. But on the day that we went to court, even some kids with no lawyers showed up. There were seven, in fact, who were there with some relative. They don't yet have a lawyer, and they were given some time to try to find a lawyer.

GREENE: Why turn up when it seems like you could just vanish in this big country?

INSKEEP: Well, in order to find that out, I talked with one of the young people who had their hearings on Thursday. His name is Jefferson - Jefferson Reyes. He's 11-years-old. He came to this country from El Salvador. Now you can't record inside a federal courtroom. But when he left, we talked on tape in a basement coffee shop there in this federal building - a windowless room - and sat there with his lawyer and with his dad who works in a clothing factory in the Los Angeles area dying pants. And I mentioned this to the father. I mentioned this widespread perception that migrants who are caught can simply skip their deportation hearings.

INSKEEP: I would assume it is possible for someone to do that. So that does raise a question - why did you come to your hearing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: Now here's what he saying, David. He's saying the reason is that my boy should be in the right - that he should not walk in fear, that he could live with his brothers. And his brothers were born in the U.S. - U.S. citizens. And the father says this could be a country of opportunities for him in a way that it has not been for many. And, frankly, the father has a situation in the United States, and his family has a situation in the United States. If they were going to try to hide from the law, they'd probably have to all go into hiding. It wouldn't be such an easy thing.

GREENE: OK. So they've made this decision that Jefferson is going to try and live within the law. He's now in the system. What are the chances that Jefferson will be able to stay here?

INSKEEP: Well, his lawyer hopes he can make a case to stay. She was granted more time to build that case. One of the possible arguments they may make is that he should be granted asylum because he feared violence in El Salvador. Here's how the lawyer, Patricia Corrales, put that case.

PATRICIA CORRALES: The gangs there were trying to recruit him, specifically, and recruit young kids like him. Fearing for their lives - many of these children, they fear for their lives. They come to the United States seeking refuge.

INSKEEP: Now federal officials have told us that in general, that is a tough case to make. It is hard to get asylum under U.S. law because you fear criminal violence. But the lawyer has asked for more time to work out the case. She was granted that, and Jefferson will make a pleading in October.

GREENE: Steve, a long legal road ahead for this young man, but, I mean, has he had a chance to think about what he might do if he's able to stay in the U.S.?

INSKEEP: You know, I asked Jefferson that question. What does he want to do?

JEFFERSON REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Doctor?

REYES: Doctor.

MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REYES: Yeah.

MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: He's saying he wants to be a foot surgeon. And says that if he did that, he could, in some way, help his family.

GREENE: All right. Just one voice there in a much larger story. Steve, thanks for bringing the story to us.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it.

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