Pols say kids will skip immigration courts, numbers tell a different story

Confusing & complicated legal system doesn't help

WASHINGTON, D.C. - As child migrants from Central America filter into the immigration court system, some lawmakers have raised an alarm that as many as 90 percent could skip out on their court dates and disappear into the United States without a backward look.

But the reality is that number is much lower. In fact, over the last nine years, between 31 and 38 percent of child immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras failed to appear in court, according to research conducted at Syracuse University.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told the PBS “News Hour” earlier this month that 90 percent of child migrants are no shows in court. And in an appearance on Senate panel this month, Juan P. Osuna, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, estimated 46 percent of juveniles don’t make their court dates.

However, recently released figures paint a much different picture.

From 2005 through June 2014, about 31 percent of Guatemalan children were no shows in court, according to EOIR case information gathered by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data organization at Syracuse University.

Among Honduran children, 38 percent didn’t appear, according to calculations based on TRAC data. And 36 percent of children from El Salvador were no shows.

According to TRAC, the overall figure for absent juveniles was 31 percent.

Most of the more than 57,000 children who have illegally crossed the southwest border since October are fleeing violence and poor conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

By law, these unaccompanied minors are funneled into the backlogged immigration court system. But experts say that a confusing and complicated legal structure means that in some cases, children fail to appear in court and may not even receive a court notice informing them of the requirement to appear before a judge.

“One of the things that always troubles me with the in absentia rate on juveniles is that the requirement to make sure that people are advised of their hearings is confusing,” said Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a longtime immigration judge in San Francisco.

Immigration judges are concerned because the law requires them to make “in absentia” decisions if certain requirements are met– possibly for deportation or removal.

Just how many children don’t show up for court has been a point of confusion in the debate over the border crisis.

“If you move and you’re a juvenile, you have to give your address to three different agencies, and often kids think that giving their address to one is enough,” Marks said.

The children are supposed to report their addresses to placing agency Health and Human Services, prosecuting agency Department of Homeland Security and immigration-court hub Department of Justice.

“That’s very counterintuitive for a lot of people,” Marks said. “You think you advise the government once, and that information is going to be communicated between the three different agencies that are involved.” 

But young people, who frequently move while getting settled, are less familiar with the process, she said. 

A legal orientation program for children released from custody increases the likelihood they’ll make court dates, said Gregory Z. Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“Without that kind of legal orientation, it is literally like sending a child blind into a maze and expecting them to be able to get to the end of it,” Chen said. “They literally just fail to appear out of ignorance.”

As part of his $3.7 billion funding request for the border crisis, the president requested $2.5 million for legal orientation. It’s unclear whether Congress will act on any legislation to deal with the border crisis before recessing for August. 

Scripps Washington correspondent Trish Choate can be reached at 202-408-2709 or Trish.Choate@Scripps.com. Follow her on Trish_in_DC.

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