When it was time for their deportation hearings, the children solemnly filed into the downtown Atlanta Immigration Court, slid into their seats and craned their necks so they could hear the translator at the front of the crowded courtroom.
They dressed up for the occasion. The boys wore button-down dress shirts and shiny new sneakers. One sported a suit and tie. The girls donned brightly colored blouses and floral-print skirts. The tension in the room was palpable as the children sat ramrod straight, silently observing the judge with their arms crossed.
A 7-year-old, sparrowlike boy found a spot in the front row. He had traveled on his own from Honduras to reunite with his parents in Georgia. There was also a teenage boy now living in Mableton who says he ran away from gang violence in El Salvador. Clutching a handwritten plea for relief, a 14-year-old Honduran girl patiently waited for her turn. She says she left her country after someone attempted to recruit her into prostitution.
They are among tens of thousands of Central American children and teenagers who have crossed the southwest border in recent years, fleeing crushing poverty and brutal crime in their native countries. Some parents pay smugglers to guide their children on risky journeys to what they hope will be safety and opportunity. A 2008 anti-human trafficking law -- signed by President George W. Bush -- prevents the government from immediately deporting them. Instead, they may seek relief from deportation in immigration courts while the government shelters them here.
Congressional Republicans have been pushing to amend or scrap the 2008 law so they could be expelled more quickly. Democrats in Congress and immigrant rights activists say doing so would put them back in harm's way. Since January, federal immigration authorities have transferred 1,412 of the them to the care of sponsors in Georgia, where many are undergoing deportation proceedings. Those proceedings can take months or even years to resolve because of huge court backlogs.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter recently spent a day observing juvenile deportation hearings. The visit illuminated the depth of the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border and revealed just how clogged the nation's immigration courts have become.
Atlanta's court is now holding two days of hearings a month for young immigrants who are facing deportation, up from just a half a day last year. Judge Madeline Garcia had more than 40 juvenile cases on her docket when she arrived Wednesday morning. At times, it was standing-room-only in her courtroom. To speed up the process, she held single hearings for groups of unrelated youths. Some had been arrested crossing the border two years ago. The AJC reporter observed Garcia handle 28 of her cases Wednesday. She did not order deportations in any of them. For most she scheduled new hearings for the fall or into next year, giving the children more time to find attorneys or seek relief from deportation.
Garcia has a good reputation among the attorneys who represent clients before her. She is unfailingly gentle with children but also firm. She invited their parents to sit beside them during their hearings while warning the children they could be deported if they skip their court dates. A former immigration attorney herself, Garcia graduated with her law degree in 1992 from Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. She speaks fluent Spanish. The Obama administration appointed her to the bench in 2011.
Wearing black robes, Garcia sat atop a dais with a clerk to her right and an interpreter to her left. A massive gold Justice Department seal complete with an eagle design hung on the wall behind them. The children -- or "respondents" -- sat at a long glass-top table in front of the judge. The federal attorney who was seeking their deportations sat at a separate table across from them. An overhead air-conditioning vent hummed while Garcia stamped documents with a clang.
Garcia called case No. 173. A slight 7-year-old Honduran boy with close-cropped hair climbed into a large leather seat that made him look even smaller. Yohan Vasquez-Arellano's feet dangled over the edge of the chair as he fiddled with the metal drawer handles on the desk. He slipped on a set of silver headphones so he could hear the interpreter translating Garcia's English. They looked like giant earmuffs on him. He traveled to the U.S. last year with the help of a "coyote" so he could reunite with his parents in the Atlanta area. Immigration authorities apprehended him in Hidalgo, Texas.
Garcia asked Yohan his name. He squeaked a response. And then she asked him to identify the woman sitting next to him.
Garcia: "Is she your lawyer?"
Garcia: "Good job. Can I talk to her about your case?"
Garcia: "Oh, sweetheart. He's a brave little kid. It's hard to come up here and talk to a judge without knowing what is going on."
Yohan's attorney, Noemi Puntier, asked for the government to use "prosecutorial discretion" and close his case. She also disclosed his 9-year-old sister is facing deportation. Garcia responded by consolidating the siblings' cases and scheduling them for a new hearing in May, giving Puntier more time to seek relief for Yohan.
"Yohan, bye," Garcia said sweetly. "Have a great day. Be good."
Later that day, Garcia called for case No. 362. Jaquelin Sierra stepped forward. The 14-year-old Honduran girl could not afford an attorney. She handed the court a handwritten note pleading for a way to stay in the U.S. with her family. Jaquelin wore sandals, pink pants and a white blouse emblazoned with the word "Love" in large black letters.
She said she crossed the U.S. border with the help of a coyote, fleeing gang violence and an effort to turn her into a prostitute. Authorities apprehended her on the border. She was later reunited with her mother in Columbus, where Jaquelin attends a middle school.
Garcia addressed her questions to Jaquelin's mother, Dexie Sierra, who sat beside her daughter.
"That letter on its own -- I'm pretty confident that will not be enough," Garcia said of Jaquelin's handwritten plea. Garcia scheduled a new hearing for her in October, so the family could spend more time submitting information to the government about her case. "Use your time wisely, OK?" Garcia admonished them.
Despite Garcia's gentle manner, the mother and daughter later said they felt anxious during the hearing, which featured lots of questions and some legal jargon.
"I was nervous," the mother said, adding about her daughter's fate, "I want her to stay here."
Earlier in the afternoon, Jose Sibrian sat on one of the benches in the back of the courtroom, resting his head on his mother's shoulder. The 16-year-old boy said life was hard in his native El Salvador, mentioning a proliferation of gangs and guns there. He was apprehended while crossing the southwest U.S. border in 2012, when he was 14. He now lives with his family in Mableton, where he goes to high school.
During Jose's hearing, his attorney, Marshall Cohen, asked the government to use its discretion and close his case. Cohen also mentioned the possibility of Jose applying for asylum. Garcia responded by scheduling a new hearing for him in October.
After his hearing, Jose talked about his perilous journey to America and his dreams of becoming a police officer here. He said he would fear the worst if he is ultimately ordered to return to El Salvador.
"Maybe I can die."
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