The Legal Equivalent of Triage in an Emergency Room...

Last month, the Daily Business Review published a story about the "rocket dockets" which have been adopted here in Miami to push unaccompanied minors through the legal system.  Four full-time judges and one part-time judge see up to 150 kids a day – as many as 60 cases per judge.  So what does the “rocket docket” look like in action?   

On Tuesday an AI Justice colleague, Tatiana, and I went to Judge Dowell’s courtroom where there were 29 unaccompanied minor cases scheduled to be heard between 1:00 and 3:00 pm.  Generally, the kids carried folders of official paperwork – notices of appearance, release paperwork from an Office of Refugee Resettlement Shelter, copies of a birth certificate or school registration – often carried in plastic grocery bags since it had been raining all day.  Over and over, I watched the bewildered kids hand their plastic grocery bags of paperwork (much of it written in English legal-ese) to Tatiana and look to her for help when their cases were called.

Some children came to court to face the judge and government attorney alone, and some came accompanied by a family member, friend, or pastor.  In the space of a few minutes, each child (through a Spanish-language court interpreter) confirmed their contact information, answered the judge’s questions, and was given a continuance in the space of a few minutes.  Adding to the confusion was the fact that several of the kids spoke indigenous languages, were not fully proficient in Spanish, and had no access to interpretation. 

After the hearings I took each child into an empty courtroom for a screening.  My goal was to explain what had just happened in court, prepare a summary of their case, as well as to orient them to what their next steps should be.

Often, there were complicating issues.  One of the kids has a sibling who is also in proceedings so I explained to the family member accompanying him that their cases could be consolidated so they wouldn’t have to drive from West Palm Beach to Miami separately.  Several of the children had changed addresses so they needed to fill out and sign two copies of an English-language form – one for the government attorney and one for the court.  While this is time-consuming, it’s important since communications from the court generally come through the mail.  A missed letter could mean a missed court date and a deportation order given in absentia. 

In general the kids were confused about what had just gone on in court and were looking for explanations.  I explained I was there to help guide them through the initial phase of their court cases.  I ensured they knew when their next court date was, gave them a list of legal service providers in South Florida, and warned them to be careful of notarios publicos who seek to take advantage of immigrants unfamiliar with the legal system and defraud them of money.

Then I moved onto the intake, a list of questions to determine if a child has experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment in the home country or if there is a credible fear of return.  There wasn’t time to develop a rapport with the kids, so I conducted the interview in a straight-forward way, acknowledging that these are tough questions about potentially sensitive issues, but that their honest answers would help us determine their potential eligibility for legal status. My shorthand hastily-scribbled-in-Spanglish notes from the interviews included things like “quit school b/c multiple gang death threats;” “abandoned by dad, mom sick, minor supporting family;” “fears return, dad murdered by mara, held for ransom by narcos, two US citizen sibs.”  As soon as I finished one intake, there were more kids who had just had hearings waiting to be seen. 

With so many kids in such a short period of time, it’s all kind of a blur but some stand out.  The Honduran girl who wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.  The Salvadoran boy who responded “because I have human dignity” when I asked why he left his home country.  The fourteen-year-old Guatemalan girl who asserted she wasn’t afraid when she rode La Bestia (the freight train through Mexico) because of her faith in God. 

As Tatiana and I drove back from court, sorting through the docket and the stack of hand-written intake forms, I commented, “This is the legal equivalent of triage in an emergency room!”

With the sheer volume of cases and the overwhelming number of kids to be seen, all I could do is offer them a legal analog of first aid – offering resource handouts, taking the basics facts of their cases, informing them of how court proceedings work, getting their contact information to follow up if we can take or refer their cases. 

Deportation for these kids can be tantamount to a death sentence and those without legal representation are much more likely to be issued deportation orders.  

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review claims that the expedited hearings will result in “fast and fair adjudication of cases before the agency.” If my experience at court this week is any indication, in spite of our triage efforts, the rocket dockets are certainly “fast” but far from “fair.” 

About the author:  Rhonda Miska is a partner in ministry with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary currently serving as a Legal Assistant with Americans for Immigrant Justice.  She is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and holds a master’s degree from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  

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