US Courts Overcrowded with 'Rocket Docket' Migrant Kids

by Carolyn Presutti

October 16, 2014

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Attorney Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy rises with the sun to face a day of uncertainties.

I dont know if todays going to be crazy or if Im going to be sitting around doing nothing, said Kennedy, who represents children in Miamis immigration court --- where the numbers are only going up.

More than 4,000 undocumented children were sent to Florida in the first eight months of this year. Kennedy barely has enough time to grab her files at Catholic Legal Services before racing to court .

Its an overwhelming number of kids that need representation, she said.

In July, the Obama administration ordered fast-tracking of court cases for children who crossed the border illegally. Attorneys call this the rocket docket."

When undocumented children are caught at the border, they are detained in shelters, then are sent to live with relatives in the United States until their court cases are heard. Florida received the largest number this year, behind only Texas, New York and California.

In a typical day at the U.S. immigration court in Miami, there were 36 children on the docket in the morning and 30 more in the afternoon -- with just four judges.

The children sit on one side of the courtroom, with a lawyer if they have one. The government attorney sits on the other side. The hearings are brief.

Training for attorneys

Advocates like Americans for Immigrant Justice train lawyers on how to defend their young clients.

Our concern is that children who dont have a reputable attorney to help them with their case, that theyre going to fall through the cracks and that in many instances they could be returned to, you know, terrible abuse or death, said Cheryl LIttle, director of the immigrant advocacy group.

Wilmer Fernando Lorenzo escaped Honduran gangs with his three younger brothers and made it to the United States. He now feels misled.

"Everyone said you could stay if you came here to study, but now I'm surprised that it was all lies, because it's really the judge that decides," he said.

Some say the Obama administration is misinterpreting the law that children from Central America cannot be deported without a hearing.

Our laws are not being enforced," said David Caulkett of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement. "The fact that they are getting over is just more incentive for more to come across.

But no changes are expected soon, since the U.S. government has delayed action on immigration reform until after November's midterm elections.

So for now, the rocket docket propels the cases -- pushing kids through first and fast.