Immigrant children

Deputy Ruben Salinas, left, of the Hidlago County Constable Department, questions a group of 16 Guatemalans after they crossed the Rio Grande near Anzalduas Park outside McAllen, Texas. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times / June 12, 2014)

Before they get a decision in their immigration cases — before they even have a hearing — the tens of thousands of children entering the country illegally will face an increasingly daunting challenge at the heart of a massive backlog in U.S. immigration court:

The young immigrants must first find an attorney.

Legal groups and immigration experts say the number of lawyers available to represent undocumented children in Maryland and elsewhere is already woefully inadequate to meet the demand — even though many of the most recent border crossers haven't yet begun to enter the court system.

As a result, in Maryland and nationwide, nearly 60 percent of minors facing deportation to countries such as El Salvador and Honduras are arriving in court without a lawyer at their side, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

That has implications not only for the children but also the court system itself. Hearings are frequently delayed for defendants without legal counsel, compounding a caseload that reached 375,373 at the end of last month — more than 1,500 for each of the nation's 243 immigration judges. In some parts of the country, hearings aren't being scheduled until 2017.

"We're extremely overwhelmed," said Adonia Simpson, managing attorney for immigration legal services at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore, which offers counsel to minors and other immigrants. "The numbers are just off the charts."

Esperanza has two attorneys who can handle juvenile immigration cases in Central Maryland. Each represents about 130 children at a time. Dozens more, Simpson said, are on a waiting list.

Despite efforts by the Obama administration to address the problem, the shortage of lawyers is expected to grow worse as the surge of children fleeing violence in Central America continues. About 57,000 have entered the United States illegally since October, more than double the number during the same period a year ago.

The White House announced in June that it would provide $2 million to identify about 100 lawyers and paralegals for minors. The administration also included $15 million for lawyers in its $3.7 billion emergency funding request to Congress this month.

The fate of the legislation is unclear.

Immigration violations are civil matters, so defendants are not entitled to a lawyer as they are in criminal court. Yet the federal government is always represented by a lawyer.

Postponing cases

Dozens of immigrant children — some in ties and dresses, others in T-shirts and jeans — appeared in a small, crowded immigration courtroom at the George H. Fallon Federal Building in Baltimore last Monday. Most came with a parent, but some sat with distant relatives, family friends or siblings.

Nearly half the cases before Judge Lisa Dornell involved children with no attorney. Most took less than 10 minutes from start to finish.

"What efforts have you made to look for a lawyer?" Dornell, using an interpreter, asked the family of a 15-year-old boy from Guatemala, beginning a conversation that was repeated frequently.

The boy's mother said the family could not afford an attorney. Experts say a private immigration lawyer in the region can cost from between $3,000 to $10,000 in more complicated cases.

Dornell asked the mother if she had tried to contact any of the groups offering free legal services, including Esperanza and Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington-based group with a field office in Baltimore. The woman said she had tried but no attorneys were available to meet with her.

And so, as in many other cases, Dornell delayed the hearing for several months, warning the family to redouble its efforts.

"I can't keep postponing this case," she said.

Courts must be careful in dealing with minors without counsel, said Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco who spoke in her capacity as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. That frequently means slowing the pace of proceedings to ensure that defendants don't miss opportunities to make their case, she said.