Acting on orders from the Obama administration, immigration courts in Orlando and Miami have created accelerated dockets for unaccompanied minors and families, prioritizing their cases as part of a national effort to stem the flood of Central Americans crossing into the United States illegally.
Under the new procedures, immigration courts have set up "rocket dockets," speeding up the time it takes to review migrants' cases and determine whether they should be deported. Whereas it typically takes two or three years to resolve deportation proceedings, the new process could take months.
But the courts are not accomplishing this by adding more judges. Rather, they have directed a handful of judges to focus primarily on juvenile and family cases, a shift that Department of Justice officials acknowledge will inevitably lead to longer delays for thousands of people.
"The sad part is that these judges have full dockets," said Tampa immigration lawyer John Ovink, whose cases are heard in the Orlando immigration court. "Most of these judges have in excess of 3,000 cases. Even if one judge is assigned extra time to do kids, it means that existing hearings will be pushed back."
After Texas and New York, Florida has received the third-largest number of what the government calls unaccompanied alien children, roughly 57,000 of whom have made the dangerous border crossing since October. Sent to stay with sponsors — usually parents or relatives — while their cases wind through the immigration courts, most of them have landed where large immigrant communities already exist. More than 3,000 have been sent to Florida.
In Orlando, judges have more than 600 pending juvenile cases, according to Department of Justice spokeswoman Kate Sheeley. But it is Miami's immigration court that will experience the brunt of the influx. Judges there are looking at 1,845 pending cases.
These figures are most alarming to the small number of non-profit and religious organizations that handle the majority of these cases and, like the courts, are already overburdened. Many of these groups are doing triage, choosing the cases of children with the best chance of qualifying for special immigrant juvenile status — a green card Congress created for children under 18 who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned by family in their native country.
Tampa Bay's Gulf Coast Legal Services has accepted about 20 such cases. Camila Pachon Silva, the only immigration lawyer at the Legal Aid Society of Orlando, said she is handling several now and expects more. She worries that the accelerated dockets won't give minors and families enough time to find lawyers or the birth certificates and other documentation they'll need.
"A lot of these children didn't come with papers," she said, "and this docket is going to go way faster than any regular docket."
She's been told that her other clients may have to wait until 2015 to have their cases heard.
Flooded with new cases, organizations that provide legal representation for the poor are turning to private lawyers for help. But the glut of juveniles has exposed a weakness in the legal community — many immigration lawyers don't have experience with these types of cases.
Gail Seeram, former president of the Central Florida branch of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, is holding a training session next month in Orlando, where Silva will teach lawyers how to win special immigrant juvenile status for their clients. It may be a challenge to convince lawyers to take these cases pro bono, Seeram said. One possible solution: removing the charity factor.
"The American Immigration Lawyers Association is seriously considering putting aside funds to help encourage attorneys to take pro bono cases or to support organizations that already are," she said.
In Tampa, Ovink said he is prepared to take as many as 15 cases of unaccompanied children and families. But as the courts speed the path to deportation, he is not particularly sanguine about the children's chances.
"My guess is that a lot of these kids will be sent back," he said.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.