Baltimore Immigration Court, facing an increase in the number of cases involving immigrant children who crossed the border illegally, is expediting reviews to more quickly decide whether the children should be deported, according to attorneys with clients before the court.
The so-called "rocket docket," created in response to a directive last month from the Obama administration to fast-track the cases, has meant the children receive initial hearings within 21 days and in some cases are given a matter of weeks, instead of months, to find an attorney.
Advocacy groups that represent immigrants in Maryland are voicing concern that the faster review has led to more children receiving deportation orders without having their day in court. Some don't receive enough notice in advance of their hearing, they say, and others struggle to find an affordable lawyer amid a widely recognized shortage.
"Four to five weeks isn't enough time to find an attorney," said Michelle Mendez, a lawyer at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington who represents clients in Baltimore. "I'm not sure what the goal is, but the reality is that kids are getting removal orders in absentia."
Maryland had received 2,804 of the children through family reunification efforts by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as of July 31, more than any other state on a per capita basis. In all, some 63,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the U.S. border with Mexico since October, with many arriving from Central America.
The Obama administration realigned immigration court dockets in mid-July to make the unaccompanied children a priority. The directive required courts to schedule an initial hearing for the children within three weeks of when a case is filed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Similar changes have taken effect in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which runs the immigration court system, said the children will have due process.
"We continue to support our mission of adjudicating immigration cases fairly and expeditiously while uniformly interpreting and administrating the law," said the spokeswoman, Lauren Alder Reid.
The systemwide changes, she said, were intended to "address the current influx of recent border crossers while providing shorter wait times for those who are waiting their day in immigration court."
Adonia R. Simpson, managing attorney for immigration legal services at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore, which provides legal counsel to minors and other immigrants, said that the cases are moving more quickly but added that "the courts are maintaining considerations of due process for these kids."
But others are sounding alarms about the practice. Twenty one days does not give a family enough time to be notified of their hearing date, particularly in cases where, for example, a clerical error results in that notice being served on the wrong address, several attorneys said.
"Placing unaccompanied children at the front of the immigration court dockets en masse and giving them very little time to find attorneys undermines the very concept of due process," said Megan McKenna, a spokeswoman with Kids In Need of Defense, a group that represents the children in Maryland and elsewhere.
"To push children through the system without giving them a fair chance to tell their story means that we will be sending children back to grave harm," she said.
Justice Department officials declined to say, specifically, what changes have taken place in the Baltimore court, which covers Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania. In addition to giving children and their families less time to find an attorney, immigration lawyers say cases involving unaccompanied children have been consolidated under a single judge and that juvenile cases are being heard multiple days each week.
Legal groups and immigration experts say the number of lawyers available to represent undocumented children in Maryland and elsewhere is woefully inadequate to meet the demand, particularly for those who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. As a result, in Maryland and nationwide, nearly 60 percent of minors facing deportation arrive in court without a lawyer at their side, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The backlog of immigration cases in Maryland is not as bad as in courts in other parts of the country. The average immigration case in Maryland took 487 days to complete, compared with 520 days nationwide, according to TRAC data.
Congress left Washington last month without addressing a request from the Obama administration for additional federal funding to deal with the influx of children. The number of apprehensions of children declined in July, a reduction the White House has attributed to enforcement efforts but that experts said may reflect a usual drop in border crossings during the summer.
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.
White House officials have long warned that most of the children will eventually be deported.
"I believe that the impression that is being given to immigration judges is that the goal is to push these children through proceedings very quickly," said Jeanne M. Atkinson, executive director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.. "The rocket dockets are vastly concerning for due process."