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Navigating Baltimore’s Immigration Court: Insights into Children’s Experiences

As her four siblings sat silently beside her in a chamber at the Baltimore Immigration Court, the 8-year-old girl entertained herself with a green flexible toy bunny gifted by an attorney — known as “Bendy” by previous children.

The bunny emerged from a drawer stocked with various toys designed to soothe anxious children.

“We have some superheroes,” Cate Scenna remarked to the youngest girl, sporting pigtails adorned with pink hair clips. “Although I believe the real superheroes are the kids themselves for their remarkable resilience,” Scenna mused aloud.

The girl idly played with the bunny’s arms, finding solace as her tension eased. Hailing from El Salvador, the sisters, aged 8 to 17, appeared in court post their separation from their father. Reunited after a year, having individually crossed the border, three of them unaccompanied, they now dreaded the prospect of being torn apart once more.

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This marked the initial steps on a challenging journey to persuade an immigration judge to permit their stay in the United States.

These sisters are part of a group exceeding 43,000 children who arrived in the United States unaccompanied from October 2023 to January of the current year, navigating the immigration system solo. This experience can be overwhelming and traumatic for non-English-speaking children facing complex legal procedures. Often devoid of legal representation, they attend hearings unaccompanied.

However, initiatives are in progress to humanize the process. Recent guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice have established specialized dockets for children, urging judges to exhibit special consideration towards unaccompanied minors, advocating for a more lenient approach to courtroom protocols. This directive aligns with the acknowledgment by the federal government of the [situation] as per the guidelines.

Judges are now required to pose age-appropriate inquiries, monitor their expressions and language, and exercise patience. The guidelines also promote familiarizing children with the courtroom before hearings to enhance their comfort.

Much of this groundwork was already laid in Baltimore, a sanctuary city embracing immigrants. Advocates and attorneys have collaborated for years to streamline proceedings for unaccompanied children by providing legal support and enhancing their courtroom experience.

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Kelly Nance, the regional public information officer at the Executive Office for Immigration Review, affirmed that juvenile-dedicated judges in the Baltimore Immigration Court are already implementing many of the “best practices” outlined in the Justice Department’s memo, a sentiment echoed by advocates.

“Baltimore immigration judges are attentive to the unique needs and circumstances of unaccompanied children,” remarked Bill Meyer, an attorney.

Insights from Immigration Data

Over the past decade, a surge of children has journeyed to the U.S. southwest border in unprecedented numbers, with [data] since October 2014. By the second year of the Biden administration, [data] pertained to individuals under 18, predominantly comprising children under 4. Many embarked on this journey from Mexico and the region commonly referred to as the Northern Triangle — encompassing Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

A growing proportion initiates immigration proceedings without legal counsel. The [data] from TRAC, a data research and distribution organization at Syracuse University, underscores this trend. While legal representation is mandated in criminal prosecutions, such safeguards do not extend to immigration courts categorized as civil proceedings.

In Baltimore, the percentage of asylum seekers appearing before a judge without legal representation varied significantly. Some judges oversaw cases where 27% of asylum seekers lacked legal representation, contrasting with figures ranging from 0.8% to 8.8% for others.

The exact number of these migrants who are minors remains uncertain. However, a report by the Congressional Research Service demonstrated significant disparities in outcomes based on whether children had legal representation. From October 2017 to March 2021, 37% of children with legal representation were compelled to depart the country, contrasting starkly with 90% of those without legal counsel who faced deportation.

Maryland courts boast one of the highest rates of legal representation at 38%, yet this figure remains relatively low. With the case backlog soaring to 35,056 in the Baltimore court alone, the availability of immigration attorneys dwindles, particularly as the court appoints additional judges to [address the backlog].

In Baltimore, Meyer perceives a system under strain, with cases scheduled well into the future. He encounters documents scheduling hearings as far out as 2025 and 2026.

Challenges Faced

During a hearing in December, a boy struggling with English informed the judge that his attorney was absent. Despite attempting to contact her, he only managed to speak with her paralegals.

“That’s concerning,” remarked the judge, placing a call to the attorney’s office listed. She instructed the recipient, “Inform her [the attorney] that her client is in court, and she is not — evidently.”

Upon the attorney’s response, the judge advised her that she should have requested a postponement of the hearing. After a brief pause, the attorney apologized and expressed uncertainty about her current status as the boy’s legal representative.

“Now I’m puzzled,” remarked the judge. “You are still the designated attorney, hence you remain his legal counsel.”

“I concur, Your Honor,” the attorney eventually acknowledged.

“Good,” affirmed the judge. “It is imperative that you maintain communication with your client to keep him informed.”

In alignment with the recent guidelines targeting individuals under 21, the Executive Office for Immigration Review has urged judges to facilitate pro bono legal representation for unaccompanied children. Additionally, judges are encouraged to streamline courtroom procedures to enhance the comfort of children, such as discarding their robes and permitting children to remain seated alongside a trusted adult rather than testifying from the witness stand. Children are also allowed to bring along a toy or book for reassurance.

These modifications mark a positive stride, noted Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense. The guidelines reverse setbacks from the Trump administration, which adopted a more skeptical stance, Podkul remarked. While courts under the Obama administration displayed some child-friendly practices, it wasn’t a universal standard.

The memo reinforces [initiatives], where judges allocate a separate docket for unaccompanied minors, government attorneys receive specialized training to handle children’s cases, and a designated individual at the courthouse screens minors, referring them to attorneys equipped to handle their cases.

Podkul commended the Baltimore court for its proactive approach, suggesting that insights from their practices could benefit other courts endeavoring to implement similar measures.

However, it is crucial to note that the guidelines are subject to change based on the administration in power. A bill introduced in November aims to establish a dedicated children’s court.

“It is imperative that these guidelines are robustly implemented to ensure their longevity,” emphasized Podkul.

A group of attorneys affiliated with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland has established a presence on the fourth floor of the George Fallon Federal Building, housing the Baltimore Immigration Court. This is where the five Salvadoran sisters awaited their turn.

In 2014, the group commenced training sessions for attorneys on immigration law fundamentals, shared Sharon Goldsmith, the center’s executive director. Collaborating with the court, they initiated a program to assist children in need, engaging with them in the building’s cafeteria. While organizations like Esperanza Center and Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition have supported Baltimore’s immigrant population for years, there was a discernible gap in specialized aid for children, as noted by Scenna, an attorney affiliated with the Pro Bono Resource Center.

In 2019, following building renovations, the group seized the opportunity to occupy the room on the fourth floor. The space is modest, furnished with two tables, a file cabinet, chairs, and little else.

“We make do with what we have,” remarked Scenna.

Judges have generally welcomed the clinic’s presence, Scenna observed. Some have directed children to visit the clinic’s room or permitted attorneys to deliver brief presentations on their rights. Attorneys engage with children to ascertain crucial details about their background, such as familial connections, instances of abandonment, neglect, or persecution based on identity, such as discrimination due to sexual orientation.

Bill Meyer was among the attorneys assisting the Salvadoran sisters.

“Has anyone been in contact with your father?” he inquired when they were in the room.

One of the sisters, proficient in English, promptly translated the question. The sisters shook their heads in response. Following their border crossing, they were held in a Texas detention facility, the name of which eluded their memory.

Upon apprehension of a child without a guardian, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a 72-hour window to transfer custody to the Department of Health and Human Services, which subsequently identifies a suitable sponsor. The sisters were eventually placed in Baltimore under the care of a family member.

However, legal representation is not guaranteed. Scenna and Meyer assess the migrants’ eligibility for asylum or alternative visas before reaching out to their network and other nonprofits to secure pro bono legal assistance.

Krish Vignarajah, president of Global Refuge, has been involved in aiding unaccompanied children since 2013. She highlighted the challenge of ensuring these children receive essential services.

“Many of these families lack the financial means to afford full legal representation, which poses a significant hurdle. Knowing that their ability to remain in safety hinges on legal representation is perhaps the most daunting aspect,” she added.

As the sisters prepared to depart the room at the Baltimore Immigration Court, Meyer assured them that he would oversee their case and connect them with legal representation.

Meyer intended to forward the case details to an organization specializing in such cases.

Upon concluding their session, the sisters appeared more at ease. Hungry, they expressed a craving for pupusas.

Before exiting, the youngest sister approached Meyer, requesting a hug.

Clara Longo de Freitas is a community journalist covering East Baltimore neighborhoods. Prior to joining the Banner, she interned with The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. Her experience also encompasses design and illustration roles with prominent news outlets like The Hill and NPR.