Influx Of Children Creates New Strain On Beleaguered Immigration Courts : Code Switch Tens of thousands of Central American children have been detained this year crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Many will now enter a legal system where cases can take 18 months or longer to resolve.

Influx Of Children Creates New Strain On Beleaguered Immigration Courts

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And Robert Siegel. President Obama said over the weekend that he's seeking to fast-track deportations of immigrant children from Central America. More than 52,000 have been detained since October in South Texas, hundreds more arrive daily. Border Patrol stations have been overwhelmed. The children are crossing without their parents and not all of them speak Spanish. In a few minutes, we'll hear how that language barrier is complicating things further, but first, how the U.S. is managing this influx of child immigrants.

NPR's John Burnett examines what happens to many of them once they're put into an overburdened system.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Walk into this restaurant in suburban Dallas and you'll be assaulted with the delicious aromas of Salvadoran soul food - fried plantains, chicken and fish tacos, sweet corn tamales, and pupusas - a sort-of pork-stuffed tortilla.

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: That's Carmen, the 43-year-old proprietor, a formidable woman wearing a stained apron. We're not using her last name because she's not in the country legally. In the next room watching the World Cup are her sons, 14-year-old Gerson and 17-year-old Darwin. Carmen says she paid a coyote $10,000 to bring them up from Morazan Province in El Salvador and cross them at McAllen, Texas. When her children arrived in March, she had not seen them for eight years.

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Carmen says word got around in her home village that she runs a restaurant in Texas. Extortionists told her sons to call their mother and tell her, either send the gangsters $1,500 or they'll execute her boys.

And so Gerson and Darwin became part of the great exodus of teenagers fleeing Central America, which according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, has some of the highest murder rates on earth. And what happens now that her children are here if they don't get residency in the U.S.?

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Well, only God knows what we'll do, Carmen says. We can't live down there anymore, and I won't be away from my sons anymore.

Her immigration lawyer, Paul Zoltan, says there's a good chance Gerson and Darwin can get residency through what's called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status because their birth father abandoned the family. But Zoltan says even if the immigration judge orders them deported...

PAUL ZOLTAN: My hunch is that the very conditions that caused them to abandon their homes are bad enough that they're not likely to leave.

BURNETT: If the past is any guide, federal records show that most non-detained immigrant children ignore removal orders and are rarely re-apprehended and deported, says Jessica Vaughan. She's a former State Department employee and director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration laws.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: We know from the past that unaccompanied kids have a poor record of appearing for their immigration hearings, and so they simply disappear into American communities and join the rest of the illegal population.

BURNETT: According to data from Syracuse University, as of March, there were nearly 370,000 total cases creeping through U.S. immigration courts. Each one takes more than a year and a half to resolve and some much longer, which leads Kathleen Walker, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, to be rather pessimistic.

KATHLEEN WALKER: So you have an overburdened system faced with an additional influx of very urgent cases, especially those involving unaccompanied minors, of course. And so it's just going to be worse than it ever has been.

BURNETT: Interviews with 18 immigrant children and their families in recent weeks confirm that the word on the street in San Salvador and Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa is that U.S. authorities effectively catch and release immigrant kids traveling solo. Minors are put into deportation proceedings and given a notice to appear in immigration court, but they have permission to stay here while the United States decides what to do with them. Paul Zoltan, who represents 45 Central American clients, says some immigrants have the mistaken impression that their deportation papers are a sort of permiso, or permission, to be in the U.S.

ZOLTAN: From a functional standpoint, what they find is that when they have it with them, they're not re-arrested.

BURNETT: Meanwhile, Gerson and Darwin are attending summer school in Dallas in the mornings and helping their mother in her cafe in the afternoons as they await their day in court.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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