Fifteen-year-old Michell Hernández shifted nervously, standing in front of the metal detector on the 17th floor at L.A.'s immigration courts. It was her first appearance before a judge and her first step in a long path toward asylum.
The teen fled El Salvador to join her older brothers, Alejandro and Luis, who were granted asylum this year, and her mother Ana, who she had not seen since she was four years old.
After a decade of separation, the family was reunited in March, but adjusting to a new life in Southern California – with high school classes, homework, new friends, lawyers and court dates – was just beginning.
Despite reforms, immigration courts still overwhelmed
Michell Hernández's case entered the immigration court in August as the system faced an unprecedented backlog, surpassing half a million ongoing cases nationwide. According to government data from Syracuse University's TRAC, immigration courts fielded 516,031 cases, as of September 2016. Those numbers include both adult and juvenile cases.
One in five of those cases are in California – the biggest share of any state. And half of those, or nearly 50,000, are in Los Angeles.
There are 250 judges in 58 courts across the nation, according to the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the agency that oversees the courts. Thirty judges currently serve in L.A. In response to the rising caseload, the agency has added more judges and staff, including swearing in an additional judge in Los Angeles this month. That followed three new judges joining the L.A. courts in June. Still, judges typically handle dozens of cases a day.
After the surge of child migrants in 2014, U.S. officials prioritized juvenile cases in an effort to expedite the process at the courts. The Obama Administration also launched ongoing meetings with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, outlining a list of programs to confront the violence and to dissuade migrants from leaving Central America. The U.S. also put pressure on Mexico to strengthen its southern border.
In 2015, the number of child migrants dropped across the Southwest border, but recent figures from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that those numbers have ticked back up. Through October 2016, for example, nearly 60,000 children have crossed the border alone in the past 12 months and over 77,000 families have been apprehended.
The top country sending family units: El Salvador.
Many children still face court without an attorney
Michell Hernández and her mother faced the immigration judge in August without an attorney. Although her older brothers did have legal counsel, her mother said even the lower rate of some discount legal aid groups was still financially out of reach for her family. Since then, the family has gotten legal aid from El Rescate, a legal advocacy group, which was founded in the early 1980s.
That's an important issue for many child migrants facing the court. In L.A., one in three child migrants faced a judge without legal representation in the past year. Because the government considers immigration an administrative process, legal counsel is not guaranteed, unlike in criminal courts. Data from court outcomes show that when children face a court without an attorney, they're more likely to be ordered deported.
A civil action case brought by legal advocates in 2014, J.E.F.M. v. Lynch, sought to challenge the government to provide legal counsel for child migrants in deportation hearings. But in September, a U.S. State Court of Appeals judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. The ruling said the plaintiffs cannot "bypass the immigration courts" and "must exhaust the administrative process before they can access the federal courts."
Even as the Hernández-González family moves forward through the court system, Ana Hernández reflected on the heavy toll the migrant crisis has taken on her home country – already reeling from gang violence and a soaring homicide rate.
"Our country doesn’t have a future if it continues as it is," said Hernández in Spanish. "The youth are fleeing, they’re migrating. Take a look at where I’m from. The only people that are left are adults, older people, grandparents – the ones that need our help. Our children have lost their freedom and those of us from there can’t return."
Correction: This story has been revised to correct the name of the organization that is helping the family. It is called El Rescate, founded in 1981, and based in Los Angeles. KPCC regrets the error.