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Despite being given priority, migrant youth still face high rate of deportation in LA's immigration courts

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Young detainees being escorted to an area to make phone calls as hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Ariz.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
Young detainees being escorted to an area to make phone calls as hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Ariz, 2014.

Data obtained by KPCC show that most youth in Los Angeles are being denied relief and are still facing the courts without an attorney, despite a change in policy.

Nine months after the Justice Department announced a policy to speed up cases for migrant youth, more than half the juveniles in Los Angeles' immigration courts have nevertheless been ordered deported, according to data obtained by KPCC. None were granted asylum.

The data, acquired  through a Freedom of Information Act request from the Department of Justice, also show that more than half of the migrant youth faced a judge without an attorney – the single most important factor in determining the outcome, according to a 2014 study by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse

The FOIA data are from July 18, 2014, through April 20, 2015, and cover 471 completed unaccompanied minor cases in the Los Angeles jurisdiction. All of the children were processed through a priority docket, a designation that the Justice Department made in 2014 in response to the surge of child migrants. Of those cases in L.A., 287 juveniles were ordered removed.

Nationwide, unaccompanied minors rose to 68,541 in fiscal year 2014, prompting a debate over the workings of a complex and overwhelmed immigration court system. The following graphs show a snapshot of how these cases are playing out in L.A.

Highlights of the findings:

Most youth receive orders of removal

Though no juveniles were granted relief through the courts, it is possible that some are seeking to stay through other means, such as asylum. For example, juveniles have the option of applying at the Department of Homeland Security's asylum office, which could prompt the case to be administratively closed at the courts. It's also possible that removal orders were issued after youth failed to show up for court dates.

"Claims for asylum incorporate a lot more complex areas of law, and there will be evidence submission, testimony, other factors that result in a longer time for that case to be completed," said Lauren Alder Reid, Counsel for Legislative and Public Affairs at the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the agency that oversees the immigration courts.

"[The cases] require a lot of really careful evaluation and our immigration judges are very good at making sure to evaluate each case under the law that applies," said Alder Reid.

The agency expects to swear in 17 additional judges later this month and is in the process of hiring 85 more judges nationwide in order to address high caseloads, said Alder Reid.

Over half of youth face a judge without an attorney

Unlike criminal courts, proceedings in the nation's immigration courts are considered administrative, and legal counsel is not guaranteed. This has been a contentious issue.

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to provide $3 million in legal aid for migrant youth. The same year, legal advocates also filed a lawsuit, J.E.F.M v. Holder, over the right to counsel for migrant youth.

The legal process to contest deportation is often complex and difficult to navigate, said Bruce Einhorn, a former immigration judge in Los Angeles and currently a law professor at Pepperdine University.

The child must establish that they are a member of a persecuted social group in their home country.

"The applicants must also prove that their future persecution or their past persecution would be or was on account of their membership in that group," said Einhorn, adding that the requirement needs documentation and benefits from an attorney.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review operates several programs, such as the Recognition and Accreditation Program, aimed at boosting legal representation for youth cases. That specific program currently partners with more than 20 legal groups in Los Angeles, according to EOIR.

Youth from Central America lead surge in immigration cases

The rise in violence and powerful gangs in Central America have prompted youth to say they fear persecution if they return to their countries, said Yanci Montes, legal representative with El Rescate, a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants in Los Angeles. The group represents about 350 youth cases at the immigration courts, said Montes.

“The first thing they tell me is, 'I don't want to get killed,'" said Montes. "'I don't want my family to get killed. I'm afraid that these gang members will actually find out that I returned, and as soon as they find out that I returned, they might kill me.'"

There are 1,805 youth still waiting to have their cases heard in LA's immigration courts. Many could face a judge in the coming months.

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