Cases of Immigrant Children in NYC Move Slowly

Katherine Polanco (center) with her sister and stepfather Acner Alan Espinoza. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Katherine Polanco (center) with her sister and stepfather Acner Alan Espinoza. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

“Good morning, I am Judge Lamb. In what language do you prefer to communicate?” The magistrate was addressing Moisés, who is 9 years old, while a Spanish translator helped his grandmother understand what was being said.

Looking over her glasses, the judge explained to the child in an almost maternal tone that his case was being postponed until October 29 in order to give him time to find a lawyer.

At least 12 other children who, like Moisés, arrived from Central America, waited to be seen by Lamb on Monday morning at her 26 Federal Plaza office, where the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) headquarters are located.

El Diario was present during eight of these hearings, which lasted between 10 and 15 minutes each. The children were accompanied by relatives, and most of them did not have a lawyer.

In the office next door, representatives of The Door and Caridades Católicas (Catholic Charities), two legal counseling organizations that offer pro bono services, explained to the families the importance of hiring a lawyer. “It is the best chance of getting a visa,” said Anthony Enríquez, from The Door.

Lamb also recommended that the families of children without a visa go to the 12th floor of the building, where other pro bono lawyers could take their case. She also provided them with a list of legal services organizations recommended by the court.

Less than a week after the hearings started, the court has handled over 100 cases. “Many families are afraid that immigration officials will come to get them at their house or that, if they appear in court, they will be instantly deported,” said Elvis García-Callejas from Caridades Católicas.

“Judges are more compassionate in these cases because children cannot defend themselves. The truth is that we are not really seeing a surge in immigration. The difference is that now most migrants are minors, and that turns it into a more sensitive situation,” said Enríquez.

Escaping the violence in El Salvador

After a grueling two-month journey from El Salvador, Katherine Polanco, 17, was finally able to meet with her mother, her 10-year-old sister and her stepfather in Brewster, in northern New York State.

“It was hard. Yes, I was afraid, but I kept thinking that I was going to see my family, and that made me feel a bit better,” she said. The young woman was kept for roughly a month and a half inside a cellar, where coyotes keep the migrants until they feel it is safe to cross.

Katherine left San Salvador in March, and crossed into the U.S. in May. She spent four days in a house, and it took her another 20 days to arrive in New York by land.

“In Katherine’s case, we have a good chance because her father was murdered in El Salvador, and now her mother is soliciting full custody of her because no one can take care of her back home,” said her lawyer.

Katherine uttered a shy “yes” when asked if she felt happy in New York. Her little sister, on the other hand, could not repress her joy and hugged her with a wide smile.

“My wife hired a private lawyer for the case because we want it to come through quickly,” said Katherine’s stepfather. “She is already enrolled in school for September, and we are confident that everything will be all right,” added Espinoza.

“My grandmother wanted to force me to marry”

Morelia Burgos, 17, was born in Guatemala. Before she started her journey to reunite with her mother in Kingston, New York, she was living in El Salvador with her grandmother.

Morelia and her two siblings stayed in Guatemala with their grandmother five years ago, when their mother decided to take a chance and migrate to the U.S. to seek a better life. “It was hard to be without my mom, and I could not live with my grandmother anymore,” said Morelia, who added that her grandmother wanted to marry her off against her will.

“She wanted to do the same with me when I was young, so I had to leave my house at 14,” says Morelia’s mother. “I thought it would be different with my daughters, but it isn’t, so now I also need to bring my other 15-year-old girl,” she said.

Katherine and her mother arrived in court without an attorney, but they spoke to the legal counselors, who recommended that they apply for a type T visa.

“We have an appointment with a lawyer recommended by the court, and we are hopeful that everything will turn out fine,” said Morelia’s mother.

Like Katherine, it also took Morelia two months to get to New York after spending a month and a half in a house in San Antonio, Texas. “The thought of living a new life and having a better future in New York,” she said, helped her through during those uncertain days.

ASIDE: Another story in El Diario by Cristina Loboguerrero depicts a similar backlog of cases in New Jersey: “From January to July, 1,877 unaccompanied minors arrived to New Jersey from detention centers near the border. Most of them live with their parents or other family members.”

According to the article, “only two court hearings have been set so far, and it’s unclear when the next one will be scheduled.”

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