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Obama Administration Should Not "Fast-Track" Deportations

The recent crisis along the southern border with Mexico has prompted much debate in Washington and around the country. Seeing as President Obama was already walking a thin line on the immigration debate, his response to the crisis has received criticism from all sides. On the right, critics claim that the President's "lax" border enforcement and his implementation of DACA  have created incentives for young unaccompanied minors to flood the border. Meanwhile, detractors on the left have called the crisis a refugee situation and have asked the President to provide the children with legal representation and ensure they are afforded due process and welcomed in the United States. For his part, President Obama has tried to appear both sympathetic to the plight of the migrant children while also resolute and tough about border security, all while keeping any hope of Comprehensive Immigration Reform alive. As you might expect, this strategy hasn't really worked out that well. The President's request for $3.7 billion to secure the border, provide international aid to Central America, increase funding for the immigration courts and the Department of Health and Human Services has gone failed to pass the Republican held House.

Furthermore, the President's message that most of these children will be deported and his emphasis on fast-tracking deportation hearings has infuriated many on the left, and for good reason. Critics see it as a PR stunt to appear strong while simultaneously stripping migrants of their right to seek asylum and to due process. Two recent news stories illustrate why this "tough" talk is disastrous in reality, for both the due process of the migrants and immigration court system as a whole.

The Houston Chronicle comes at this story from a more personal perspective, profiling a paralegal named Laura Rheinheimer who worked for a non-profit based in Harlingen, Texas, and her 17-year-old client, Elvin Rodriguez, from Honduras. When the Laura first met Elvin, her colleagues warned her that he was difficult and a lost cause. However, she understood that he was a child with a traumatic past caught up in an overly bureaucratic and unjust system. Filing for asylum was Elvin's only option, and a long shot since only 2% of all asylum cases are approved. While he was waiting for his case to be decided, Elvin was sexually abused by a guard at the detention center. However, the incident was swept under the rug and he was not aware that he could have applied for a U-Visa.

Elvin continued with his asylum case and when he was 18 he was transferred to an adult detention center. After waiting for years his asylum case was approved. He is moving on with his life but still has nightmares about the abuse he suffered in the detention center.

Elvin's case illustrates how difficult and complicated asylum cases are. He was a scared child, terrified to open up to lawyers, asylum officers, and paralegals. He was lucky that one paralegal took a chance on him. Unfortunately, many of the unaccompanied children crossing the border won't have such a chance, especially if deportations are "fast-tracked". It's unrealistic to expect children, with no legal counsel, who have just gone through a traumatic ordeal to open up to border patrol and asylum officers. Speeding up this process seriously risks violating these children's rights to due process and the United States' commitment to respecting human rights.

NPR also weighed in on this issue with the President of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Dana Leigh Marks, warning that "fast-tracking increases the likelihood of further clogging the court system, as the practice could lead to appeals based on noncitizens' lack of understanding of the U.S. process".  Judge Marks also noted that immigrants are better served and the court system functions more efficiently when noncitizens have legal representation. And while noncitizens in immigration proceedings have the right to be represented by an attorney, they must pay on their own. There is no public defender like system for the immigration courts.  The result is that most immigrants cannot afford to hire a lawyer and end up going through the exceedingly complicated and bureaucratic process by themselves. Nonprofits that offer pro bono legal services to immigrants are overwhelmed and cannot possibly serve all those in immigration proceedings. 

It's easy to understand why President Obama is taking this "fast-track" approach. It sounds good and makes him look tough. Unfortunately, it's completely misguided. Not only is "fast-tracking" deportation hearings a total violation of a person's right to a fair trial and due process, it's an overly simplistic response to an incredibly complicated humanitarian crisis. As Elvin's story shows, asylum cases take time and dedicated legal representatives to build a credible story. And as Judge Marks points out, immigrants' lack of understanding of the court system will inevitably lead to problems and delays down the line. "Fast-tracking" only exacerbates these problems. It may sound like a good idea now, but it will only serve to delay the already beleaguered immigration court system and deny justice to thousands of immigrants seeking safety and security in our country.

Sources: "The case for asylum: A child's long, lonely trek" by Susan Carroll. The Houston Chronicle.  http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/special-reports/article/The-case-for-asylum-A-child-s-long-lonely-trek-5665031.php#/0

"A Top Immigration Judge Calls for a Shift on 'Fast-Tracking'" by Richard Gonzales.  NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/08/08/338908762/a-top-immigration-judge-calls-for-shift-on-fast-tracking