Few immediate consequences for child immigrants; can legally stay in US for years
The immigration court system was backlogged with as many as 30,000 pending cases before the most recent surge.
Court delays that already persist for years will grow even longer as the beleaguered system absorbs the cases for the new children immigrants. That will make the risk of speedy deportation even less likely and further fuel perceptions that crossing the U.S. border carries few immediate consequences.
Antunez lived in the U.S. for nearly nine months before his first court hearing in March. When he appeared again last week in an immigration court in Arlington, Virginia, Antunez was ordered to come back again next year after his lawyer told Judge John M. Bryant that his client will ask the government for asylum.
It was the same for many for the teenagers who stood in court for their first hearings. The judge told them, come back next year and try to find a lawyer in the meantime.
Cuco, the immigration lawyer, said next year's hearing will only be the beginning of a process that will take years longer.
Antunez will meet with an asylum officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and his case probably will be sent back to court, his lawyer said.
As he waits, the high school freshman will focus on school and keep learning English. Six months after his asylum claim is filed, Antunez can apply for a work permit.
Final decisions by immigration judges can take years, but that supposes immigrants dutifully attend their assigned hearings. Many won't. As many as one-quarter of the immigrants ordered to show up in court in recent years have failed to appear, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that runs immigration courts.
"The longer the process goes, the less likely it is that people will return," said Doris Meissner, a former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
After years in the United States, immigrants establish roots.
Advocates so far have successfully urged President Barack Obama not to immediately deport many young immigrants and those whose only offense is living in the country illegally.
Instead, the government has more narrowly targeted people who return to the U.S. after they were deported, people who threaten U.S. national security and public safety and adults who can be subject to expedited deportation that takes hours or days.
The recent increase in child immigrants is politically inopportune for Obama, who has pushed Congress to act on long-stalled proposals to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
The president has made several administrative changes to immigration enforcement, including a program to allow some young immigrants who came to the country before 2007 to avoid deportation and obtain a work permit for two years.
Children crossing the border "would not be entitled to a path to citizenship as a result of entering the country now," said Customs and Border Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Obama's immigration policies and blamed the administration for what Obama has described a humanitarian issue at the border.
"Once these minors come to the U.S., they are eligible for a wide array of benefits and it will be years before their case is ever heard in court," said GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
"Without immediate consequences for this illegal immigration, it will only encourage more illegal immigration and more dangerous journeys by children in order to take advantage of the administration's failure to enforce our immigration laws," he said.
Adult immigrants caught crossing the Mexican border illegally are generally removed from the U.S. within hours or days of their arrest. But a federal law dating to President George W. Bush's administration requires that unaccompanied child immigrants must be turned over to HHS within three days. From there, many are reunited with parents or other relatives already in the United States or other sponsors before the lengthy court process beings.
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap
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