Visiting a New Children’s Docket in Maryland

September 14, 2023

From the Field:

I recently visited immigration court in Hyattsville, MD, to observe one of the court’s new juvenile’s dockets. A juvenile docket—a special sitting of the court to hear only unaccompanied children’s cases—is a way to make immigration court more accessible and fair to the children who have to appear to make their case for U.S. protection. 

Immigration courts are not child-friendly places, with very few accommodations made for children – especially very young ones. Children face the same circumstances as adults: they must appear before a judge and counter a government attorney most often arguing for their deportation, and without the guarantee of a lawyer to support them. Hearings are often held simultaneously and attorneys, clerks, and those appearing for cases and their families are rushing from place to place. Though interpreters are present for court proceedings, they are generally not available as people navigate security at the building, look for their assigned court room, and wait for instructions before the hearings begin. Many of those scheduled to appear are confused, fearful, and nervous. 

Unaccompanied children facing immigration court alone feel these stressors acutely. They may have never been to a court, may not understand the purpose or the stakes of the adversarial hearing at which they are appearing, do not know the roles of the people involved, and may not grasp their options to avoid deportation.  

On the day I was at the court, about a dozen unaccompanied children were waiting for their hearing. One girl, appearing without an attorney, told the judge (through an interpreter) that she had entered the country nearly six years ago and had been unable to secure an attorney since arriving. She had filed an asylum application on her own, but it is still pending before a different agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Without the assistance of a lawyer to prepare the application it is unlikely to be approved because of the complexity of the process.  She had appeared in court alone repeatedly over those six years.  

The judge explained how to file one of the necessary forms, encouraged her to find supporting documentation for her claim to asylum, and reiterated the importance of continuing to appear for hearings, even if she is unable to find an attorney. The judge spoke slowly, pausing after each phrase to allow the interpreter to repeat her instructions in Spanish and waiting for the girl to indicate that she understood. The judge explained that she could no longer postpone the girl’s case and that at the next hearing, the girl would have to present her case for asylum and the judge would either grant or deny the request.  

This judge did what she could in difficult circumstances to ensure that the girl understood the proceedings, but her ability to make the process child-friendly on her own could only go so far. Many children appear before judges who make far less effort to ensure that the children before them understand what is going on.  

Nationally, to ensure all children have a fair chance to make their claim for U.S. protection, immigration court should formalize a structure that ensures basic minimum standards are in place for children’s cases—standards that include ways that make the process more child-friendly and less adversarial. Some courts around the country create dockets to assign unaccompanied children’s cases to certain judges, as in Hyattsville, but the courts must standardize and expand this practice.  

That is why KIND is calling for the establishment of specialized children’s dockets in immigration court, where judges, court staff, and legal services work together to break down barriers and make the court process more accessible for unaccompanied children. KIND’s vision of specialized children’s dockets includes three components that the Biden Administration can implement immediately, without the need for legislation or funding from Congress:  

  • Specialized court personnel. These dockets should be overseen by dedicated judges and staffed by a corps of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys who receive regular training on child-friendly and trauma-informed practices. 
  • Child appropriate adjudication. Children’s dockets should manage court proceedings with strategies appropriate for the developmental levels of the children before them. Judges and government attorneys should ensure children the opportunity to understand and ask questions about the relief they may be eligible for.  
  • Coordination with legal and social service providers. Courts should coordinate with legal services providers and pro bono attorneys to facilitate their ability to meet with children before or after their hearings and provide a space in the court for such consultations to take place.  

Under KIND’s vision of a children’s docket, the girl whose appearance I observed in Hyattsville would have had the opportunity to speak with counsel – and perhaps secure representation – before appearing before the judge. Ensuring children the opportunity to meet with an attorney from the very beginning would save the court system significant time and expense. Furthermore, the judge and government attorney would be better equipped to provide child-friendly explanations. Unrepresented unaccompanied children’s ability to understand and participate in their proceedings would not rest solely on whether they were assigned to a judge who would take the time to make the effort. 

KIND is grateful for the work underway in the Hyattsville court to incorporate child-friendly practices. We remain hopeful that the robust system of specialized children’s dockets that KIND envisions will come to fruition soon, ensuring that children’s right to due process is protected, their claims for protection are reviewed fairly, and court efficiency is strengthened.