The tiny 8-year-old girl, Madelin, smiled when her name was called at the immigration court in lower Manhattan. Her four pigtails swung from side to side as she made her way to the wooden chair before the judge.
Everything in the courtroom towered above Madelin: the translator whispering in her ear, the government lawyer trying to force her back to Honduras, the American flag behind the judge’s bench.
She was alone – and would remain so. Because of a federal government delay, Madelin would continue staying at the Rising Ground shelter in Yonkers – even though her aunt was just a few miles away, across state lines in Connecticut.
The morning of April 16, 2019 was just like any another “UAC hearing” at 26 Federal Plaza, where dozens of what the government calls “unaccompanied alien children” are shuttled from nearby shelters every month to face potential deportation. The administrative process is usually quiet, typically swift, and always out of the general public’s eye.
That’s because no cameras are allowed in immigration court. As such, the American public rarely sees what it’s like when an unaccompanied child – whose feet often don’t even reach the floor – faces a complex deportation hearing. If you’ve seen real life images, they’re probably re-enactments.
Univision 41 Investiga hired courtroom sketch artists Andrea and Shirley Shepard to capture the scene at two courtrooms.
These scenes will continue to play out with greater frequency in courtrooms across the country. This week, Customs and Border Protection announced that a record number of unaccompanied migrant children have been detained while crossing the US border with Mexico alone. There were 76,020 children detained between October 2018 and September 2019, according to publicly available CBP data.
The government pays for nonprofit lawyers who advocate on behalf of children like 12-year-old Nayeli, who escaped violence Guatemala. A lawyer at Catholic Charities represented her in court that day, explaining to the judge that she was being held at a Cayuga shelter in New York, even though her aunt was just across the Hudson River in New Jersey. The unification process was being delayed, because the government had not yet processed the aunt’s fingerprints to ensure Nayeli would end up at a safe home. Do we know what the average time for processing fingerprints is and/or how long had the aunts fingerprint process being going on for?
Sometimes, children end up on opposite ends of the country from their parents, seemingly without reason. The smallest boy in court that day was Kleibert, a 5-year-old from Guatemala whose feet dangled from the wooden chair in Judge Helen Sichel’s courtroom. His mother was 4,000 miles away in California, and his lawyer indicated that the reunification process was still in its early stages. It would likely be months before he could be reunited with her.
“You need to consider the age of a child during separation. The greater the separation, the greater the impact, the traumatic impact,” said Dr. Luz Townshend Miranda, a child psychologist in Manhattan who frequently testifies in New York family and criminal cases.
“Their ability to develop sustained, healthy relationships will be permanently impaired,” she said. “These are children that will have difficulty with peers. They won’t understand what their impact is on others. They will not be able to get along well. They will have difficulty keeping jobs. They will have difficulty in school… because so many of their cognitive functions will have been impacted by the stress of the separation and uncertainty in their environment.”
And while government-paid translators are readily available for kids who only understand Spanish, it’s rarer to find those who speak the indigenous Mayan language of Q'eqchi. That was the case for Victor, a teenager from Guatemala, who appeared before Judge Jem Sponzo that Tuesday morning. He remained at a local children’s shelter and hadn’t found a sponsor to take him in. If his brother-in-law in Florida refused or was rejected by federal authorities, Victor runs the risk of “aging out” of his children’s shelter when he turns 18 -- which would mean he gets arrested by ICE agents and sent to a local jail on his birthday, as Univision 41 Investiga documented in an investigation about ICE "age-outs"earlier this year.
Another reason that migrant kids will continue to appear in court alone is that the U.S. government continues to split apart migrant families as they cross the border seeking refuge. When they do, the children appear in court alone. Although a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to halt separations in June 2018, the government continues to separate families if parents appear to have a criminal history or a different surname than the child.
It was a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit, that led to that judge’s nationwide injunction. This legal battle continues, however, because the ACLU claims the Trump administration is separating children under questionable circumstances.
One stark example was detailed in court papers submitted this past summer. Michelle Lapointe, a senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project in Georgia, told the story of her client: a man who was separated from his three-year-old daughter at the Texas border in March. Although his name does not appear on her birth certificate, the father brought with him two notarized documents from Honduras proving he was her father and legal guardian with the mother’s approval. Immigration officials ignored his pleas for a DNA test, sent him to a jail in Mississippi, and sent the little girl to shelter in New York City.
They didn’t speak for two months. At a foster home, another child forced the little girl to touch her genitals and kiss. The trauma caused the little girl to regress her potty training, and she started to have difficulty chewing and drinking properly, according to Lapointe. When the father was finally able to reach his daughter by phone in May, the girl screamed repeatedly and said she was mad at him. After months in custody, they each chose to “self-deport” and now live back in Honduras.
According to the ACLU, the Trump administration last week revealed in court documents that it had separated 1,556 more families than previously known – bringing the total number to nearly 5,500 families.
Because the Trump administration keeps separating families after the judge’s order to stop, more than 300 kids have ended up in the New York City area as of this summer, according to attorney Anthony Enriquez, director of Catholic Charities’ unaccompanied minors program. His lawyers with the archdiocese of New York represent dozens of children at any given time. As of October 25, the number stood at just over 20.