Referrals to immigration courts in Louisiana have surged in recent years. Most of those children end up in New Orleans, in part because they can live with relatives while their cases are pending. The local immigration court already had a huge backlog.

Gov. Bobby Jindal chided President Barack Obama last week for not informing him that more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly Central American children fleeing violence in their home countries, are now in Louisiana.

Among his questions: “In which parishes are these children now living?”

Odds are, they’re in and around New Orleans.

By the end of June, 1,216 cases involving children were pending in immigration courts in Louisiana, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks federal immigration enforcement.

They’re all in New Orleans Immigration Court, which already had a massive backlog.

Why New Orleans? The immigration court here, located at One Canal Place, is the only one in the state that deals with people who aren’t in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Another factor: Most of the cases involve Honduran children, and New Orleans has a large Honduran population. The federal government tries to place unaccompanied minors with relatives or sponsor families as they process their cases.

National news coverage has focused on temporary detention centers where children are held until they’re placed with a sponsor. Their cases cases will play out in cities with immigration courts, such as Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New Orleans.

Ware Gasparian, a law firm in Metairie that specializes in immigration law, has about a dozen local cases involving children accused of being in the country illegally. They’re now living with family members in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

Managing Partner Kathleen Gasparian said she has started a matching program to find firms in the area willing to represent, for free, other unaccompanied minors. “Our little firm just can’t handle all these cases,” Gasparian said.

New Orleans immigration court overwhelmed with cases

Neither can the local court.

Since 2005, 1,602 children have been referred to Louisiana’s two immigration courts, the Oakdale Immigration Court and the New Orleans Immigration Court. All but 20 have gone to New Orleans. Nearly 70 percent of the children are Honduran.

450Unaccompanied minor cases referred to immigration courts in La. this year71Unaccompanied minor cases in the state in 2011

The number of new cases has risen dramatically in recent years. So far this year, there have been 450 referrals. There were 540 in all of 2013. That was more than double than the year before.

Back in 2011, there were just 71 referrals.

By the end of June, 1,216 of those 1,602 juvenile immigration cases in Louisiana were still pending.

In July, the federal government reported that it had taken in 30,000 children this year at temporary holding centers. Those children have been sent throughout the country, where they face a special court process meant to guard against child trafficking.

Last week, Jindal sought more information about the 1,071 minors sent to Louisiana this year. He asked why the Louisiana Department of Children and Families was not consulted before the children were placed in the state and how many more will come.

“We are in the midst of hurricane season and I am gravely concerned about the safety and well being of the 1,071 unaccompanied immigrant children who were placed without our knowledge in Louisiana in the last six months,” Jindal wrote.

Why cases are being heard in New Orleans’ immigration court

The 1,216 cases in Louisiana represent about 3 percent of all pending juvenile  immigration cases nationwide, according to data collected by Syracuse.

They’re all being handled in New Orleans because it’s the only immigration court in the state that deals with undocumented immigrants who are not in the custody of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, spokesman Vincent Picard said in an email to The Lens.

Loyola law professor Hiroko Kusuda and a group of law students are handling 15 to 20 cases involving unaccompanied minors in New Orleans Immigration Court. Referrals to the New Orleans court have surged in the last couple of years. Most of the children dont have lawyers.
Loyola law professor Hiroko Kusuda and a group of law students are handling 15 to 20 cases involving unaccompanied minors in New Orleans Immigration Court. Referrals to the New Orleans court have surged in the last couple of years. Most of the children dont have lawyers. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Detained prisoners are processed through the other immigration court in Louisiana, located at the federal prison in Oakdale, in Allen Parish.

“The immigration court in New Orleans serves the non-detained population – people who are in immigration proceedings but who aren’t in ICE custody – so that is where children would attend,” Picard wrote.

Local demographics also play a role. The New Orleans area has a relatively large number of people from Central America, particularly Honduras. About 25,000 Hondurans — two-thirds of the number statewide — live around New Orleans, according to 2012 Census data.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for finding a place for those children to live while their cases are pending. The agency tries to put them with relatives.

“All of my clients are living with relatives,” said Loyola law professor Hiroko Kusuda, who heads up immigration cases handled by the Loyola Law Clinic.

The clinic is handling 15 to 20 unaccompanied minor cases in the local immigration court.

Most minors in New Orleans immigration court don’t have lawyers

More than 80 percent of juveniles whose cases were pending in New Orleans Immigration Court at the end of June do not have legal representation, compared to about 69 percent nationally, according to Syracuse University.

And most children — nine out of 10 — without lawyers end up receiving deportation orders, compared to about half of children with lawyers, according to Syracuse.

81%Of children in New Orleans Immigration Court don’t have lawyers90%Of children nationally who don’t have lawyers are ordered to leave the U.S.

Being in the country without authorization or documentation is a civil offense, not a crime, so there is no right to publicly funded counsel. Civil-rights groups have sued the federal government for failing to provide free attorneys to juveniles facing deportation proceedings, arguing that children are ill-equipped to represent themselves, the Los Angeles Times reported.

At the Loyola Law Clinic, Kusuda and 10 law students are working on child immigration cases, all pro bono.

Kusuda said she expects to take on more.

“I get calls almost every day. The number has increased probably in the last six months or so,” she said. “I have not said no to any client received by the Children’s Rights Clinic,” which is part of the Loyola Law Clinic.

“We’re doing our best not to say no,” she said, “because we don’t want any children to be deported without counsel.”

Different legal process for undocumented minors

Once these children are here, they face a complex legal process, according to Kusuda.

Often, she said, the children were abandoned by their parents in their home countries. In those cases attorneys can help them apply for legal residence under the Special Immigrant Juvenile program through U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.

The first step in that process is an appearance before a judge in state court. “The court has to make a finding that it’s not viable for them to be reunited with their parent, and it’s not in their best interest to be sent back to their home countries,” Kusuda said.

Some of the children represented by the law clinic have been raped, abandoned or severely abused. “We had a case that the actual natural father burned him with cigarette butts,” Kusuda said.

In the meantime, attorneys go before an immigration judge to ask that deportation proceedings be postponed until the state judge makes a decision.

In some cases, children haven’t been abandoned or abused by their parents, but they’re fleeing pervasive gang violence. They may be eligible for asylum in the U.S.

“Once the child becomes a teenager, they become a target of gang recruitment,” Kusuda said. “If they reject the recruitment effort, they are threatened or persecuted because of their rejection. Sometimes kids receive death threats.”

Kusuda said she’s seeing more immigration cases involving girls. “I think one of the most difficult situations we’re seeing is they’re raped … by the gang members,” she said.

To get asylum, an applicant must demonstrate that she was persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership in a certain social group. If the persecution wasn’t committed by the government, the applicant must prove that the government acquiesced or turned a blind eye to it, Kusuda said.

In those cases, attorneys file an asylum claim with Citizenship and Immigration Services and try to delay deportation hearings until that’s resolved.

The immigration cases in New Orleans probably won’t be resolved quickly. The court is incredibly backlogged, and it doesn’t currently have a full-time judge.

By the end of June, there were 6,214 cases pending in the New Orleans Immigration Court, according to an emailed statement from the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Department of Justice agency that oversees immigration courts.

The statement said judges are serving here on a “rotating basis.”

“I think the clerks are having a difficult time arranging the court dates,” Kusuda said. “You can’t get a court date until probably next fall.”

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...