As each immigrant child took their seat in his courtroom for their hearing, Judge John M. Bryant started the same way.
“How are you doing today?” he’d ask.
“Muy bien,” most would answer.
In a span of about 45 minutes, Bryant – an immigration judge in Arlington, Virginia – checked in on the cases of 16 immigrants under the age of 20, all with attorneys and some with parents.
The day was known as a “master calendar hearing” – a swift introduction in court and the beginning of court proceedings for immigrants facing deportation.
The children had largely been in the country for some time, each fighting in court for the right to stay.
But though the immigration courts have long dealt with immigrant children, even those barely school age or younger, their turn through the unique, stand-alone immigration courts is getting new attention as the government’s “zero tolerance” border policy has sent thousands more children into the system without their parents.
The hearings were observed by six Democratic members of Congress: Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland; Rep. Don Beyer, whose Virginia district includes the court; Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico; and Reps. Pete Aguilar, Nanette Diaz Barragán and Norma Torres, all of California.
At a news conference afterward, Beyer called the session “One of the best-case scenarios of a master calendar hearing, a sympathetic judge with kids with lawyers.”
The lawmakers said they had wanted to come to the court to witness it for themselves, because they fear that around the country there are too many courtrooms that are the opposite.
“We know that in vast numbers of cases, there is not proper representation,” Hoyer said, adding that some kids are “not old enough to spell their own names, let alone represent themselves in court.”
In each case, the attorneys described waiting for applications filed with the government, and all were quickly given court dates into 2019 to come back for another check-in. One, a boy named José who had just finished ninth grade, was there for his second check-in and for his full asylum hearing received a court date of May 11, 2021 – likely to be just as he is finishing high school in the US.
The youngest was a 6-year-old boy, Rodolfo, who was there with his attorney and father, though Rodolfo’s case was being heard by itself. As he did with most of the children, Bryant asked Rodolfo if he was in school, translated by an interpreter via headphones provided to every immigrant facing the court.
“Hoy?” Rodolfo asked, confused – “Today?”
Bryant cheerfully prompted Rodolfo about what grade he had finished – kindergarten – and his teacher’s name – Ms. Dani. Bryant said he still remembered his own kindergarten teacher, Ms. Sweeney, from many years prior. “Hasta luego,” Bryant told Rodolfo, giving him a next court date of May 30, 2019.
While all the children in Bryant’s courtroom on this afternoon had attorneys, the Arlington Immigration Court is not typical of the country, where closer to one in three children are represented in court, according to data maintained by a clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Recently released Justice Department data says that in the first two quarters of this fiscal year, 79% of kids with cases at least a year old were represented.
Bryant was also generous with the continuances requested by attorneys as they waited to hear from the government on applications for other visas for the children, despite uniform opposition by the government attorney in court.
“Mr. Wagner, your turn,” Bryant joked at one point to the government attorney present, who dutifully recited the government’s opposition to granting continuances solely on the basis of waiting to hear back on a visa application. Bryant than immediately picked a day on his calendar for the immigrant and attorney to return.
One attorney for a 12-year-old girl, Rosemary, who was there with her mother, said they had applied for a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa, which is for minors who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent. Bryant asked the attorney if the application was before a “sweet or sour judge.”
“I think it’s going to be a problem. It may have to be appealed,” the attorney replied.
The judge granted them a court date on February 28 of next year.
“Have a nice summer,” he said to the girl. “Just be a kid, OK?”