Image via Kids In Need of Defense.

At the end of July, we published a blog post debunking some myths about the unaccompanied children housed at Fort Sill in Lawton. Now that the temporary shelter there has been closed and the children have all been relocated, we talked with the TU College of Law’s Professor Elizabeth McCormick (who spoke about this issue at OK Policy’s Summer Policy Institute) about where the children are now and what their futures look like. We summarized her responses.

Where are the children who were housed at Fort Sill now?

When the temporary shelters at Fort Sill and elsewhere closed, about 37,000 children had been placed with sponsors, typically family members. The majority of the children placed with sponsors are now in Texas, California, Florida and New York.

Of the 1,800 children who passed through Fort Sill, only a few remain in the state, although some who had previously been housed elsewhere have been reunited with family here. As of the end of July, about 241 unaccompanied children were living with sponsors in Oklahoma. Children for whom sponsors could not be located have been placed in permanent shelters, none of which are located in Oklahoma.

What happens next for the immigrant children?

That depends. The children now face removal proceedings, an administrative process to determine if they are eligible for any relief under US immigration law. These proceedings will determine if the children can stay or if they will be sent back to their countries of origin. Because these children come from non-bordering countries, they are subject to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), and the removal process for them is very different than it is for unaccompanied minors from Mexico.

What’s involved in the removal proceedings?

The first hearing, known as the Master Calendar Hearing, is where a noncitizen is asked to respond to the factual allegations and the charge that s/he is removable. After the respondent pleads to the charges, a hearing on any claim the respondent might have is scheduled.

Due to notoriously backlogged immigration courts, removal proceedings can last for years. However, pressure to quickly determine outcomes for the children has transformed typically ponderous courts into “rocket dockets,” churning out cases at unprecedented rates. The National Immigration Law Center has filed a lawsuit over the rush deportations, accusing officials of “raising numerous legal and practical hurdles to discourage migrants from seeking asylum, after deciding in advance that few petitions would succeed.” There are also reports that “textbook” asylum claims are now being denied.  And as the recent murders of at least five children deported from the US to Honduras indicates, the risk is real.

Where are immigration hearings being held?

Oklahoma’s only immigration hearings facility – essentially a room connected to Dallas’s immigration court via video link – closed in early August. Now children given notices to appear in immigration court have to travel to Dallas, a hardship not only for the children and their families, but also for whatever counsel the child may have obtained. Immigration courts also exist in Denver, Kansas City and Memphis, but all children residing in Oklahoma are required to appear in Dallas, even though that may mean travelling substantially greater distances.

Do the immigrant children have lawyers?

If they are lucky. Less than one-third of children whose cases are currently pending have a lawyer. Lawyers make a significant difference in removal proceedings: research shows that children without access to counsel were deported in 90 percent of cases. With access to counsel, that number dropped to  under half.

This is because the immigration court system is labyrinthine, and children are often unaware of or don’t know how to request options that would avoid deportation. A child with representation is more likely to share information that might lead to a discovery that s/he has a valid claim for asylum or special immigrant juvenile protections, or even in some cases proof that the child is a US citizen. Without a lawyer, the likelihood that a child will be able to access relief drops considerably.

However, the government isn’t required to provide lawyers for removal proceedings – and most of these children and their families can’t afford to hire one. Groups such as the University of Tulsa’s Immigrant Rights Project and Catholic Charities are trying to step in to fill the gap. However, their resources are limited, and their capacity depends enormously on the court timeline. An asylum request, for examples, takes about 50 hours of a lawyer’s time. When hearings are months in the future, it gives lawyers more time to work with clients. But the tight timeframe of the rocket docket requires lawyers to more closely focus their resources – and that means they have to take fewer cases.

However, geographical issues, limited access to lawyers, and pressure to process cases quickly means that decisions made by immigration judges may be less in the best interest of the child and more in the interest of political expediency.