The clock is ticking for the federal government to open family detention center doors and release immigrant children who are seeking asylum. In her recent ruling in Jenny Lisette Flores v. Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the government to release detained children by October 23, 2015.
In the end, Gee said the government should not hold children for longer than 72 hours unless it has proof that they are dangerous to themselves or others, or at high risk for flight. She also said that the goal should be “family reunification” and so they should be released with their parents as a first resort.
One year later, child migrants from Central America are still paying a heavy price for President Barack Obama’s decision last summer to rush them into deportation proceedings without first taking steps to provide legal counsel.
New government data this week offer a first, full-year tally for the immigration courts, and the numbers show that among the 13,451 cases completed since July 18, 2014, barely half the children had legal representation.
The picture has improved over time, but in 38 percent of the cases completed since last Christmas, the child was still without counsel. Even since mid-April, there have been an average of 100 case completions per week in which there is no record of a defense attorney.
At one level, this picture is skewed by the stubbornly high level of deportation orders issued by judges “in absentia,” when the child defendant does not appear in court. But migrant rights attorneys argue that this is a Catch-22 situation: Without access to counsel, more children stay away and have no realistic chance of appeal.