There was a time, just a few years ago and for decades prior, that America held the moral high ground on the world’s stage. We stood for fairness, justice, freedom and human rights.
Under the Trump administration, our nation has lost its moral compass and has relinquished its position as the leader of the free world. Here is just the latest, sad example.
The youngest child to come before the bench in federal immigration courtroom No. 14 was so small she had to be lifted into the chair. Even the judge in her black robes breathed a soft “aww” as her latest case perched on the brown leather.
Her feet stuck out from the seat in small gray sneakers, her legs too short to dangle. Her fists were stuffed under her knees. As soon as the caseworker who had sat her there turned to go, she let out a whimper that rose to a thin howl, her crumpled face a bursting dam.
The girl, Fernanda Jacqueline Davila, was 2 years old: brief life, long journey. The caseworker, a big-boned man from the shelter that had been contracted to raise her since she was taken from her grandmother at the border in late July, was the only person in the room she had met before that day.
“How old are you?” the judge asked, after she had motioned for the caseworker to return to Fernanda’s side and the tears had stopped. “Do you speak Spanish?”
An interpreter bent toward the child and caught her eye, repeating the questions in Spanish. Fernanda’s mouse-brown pigtails brushed the back of the chair, but she stayed silent, eyes big. “She’s … she’s nodding her head,” the judge said, peering down from the bench through black-rim glasses. This afternoon in New York immigration court, Judge Randa Zagzoug had nearly 30 children to hear from, ages 2 through 17. Fernanda was No. 26.
Judge Zagzoug came to the bench in 2012, around the time children started showing up by the thousands at the border on their own, mostly from Central America. Now that immigration controls have stiffened in response, more children than ever are in government custody, for far longer than they ever have been — weeks turning to months in shelters that were never meant to become homes.
The result is a new wave of children in the immigration courts across America. Though the exact figures are not known, lawyers who work with immigrants said the large number of migrant children now being held in detention has given rise to a highly unusual situation: more and more young children coming to court.
“We rarely had children under the age of 6 until the last year or so,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “We started seeing them as a regular presence in our docket.”
These young immigrants are stranded at the junction of several forces: the Trump administration’s determination to discourage immigrants from trying to cross the border; the continuing flow of children journeying by themselves from Central America; the lingering effects of last summer’s family-separation crisis at the border; and a new government policy that has made it much more difficult for relatives to claim children from federal custody.
At the moment, the government’s rolls include hundreds of children in shelters and temporary foster care programs who were taken from an adult at the border, whether a parent, grandparent or some other companion. About 13,000 children who came to the United States on their own were being held in federally contracted shelters this month, more than five times the number in May 2017.
All of which means there are more children showing up more often to federal immigration courtrooms like Judge Zagzoug’s, at hearings that could determine whether they will be deported, reunited with their parents, or granted the asylum that their parents desperately want for them. They often sit at counsel tables alone, unaccompanied by any family and sometimes without even a lawyer.
Under the circumstances, the children in Courtroom 14, many of whom were from a shelter operated by the Cayuga Centers, were fortunate. Many were allowed to go home at night to a foster family, though they returned to the shelter by day. And they could count on lawyers from Catholic Charities, which receives funding from a nonprofit group to represent immigrant children in New York City shelters.
“We used to just deal with teenagers,” one lawyer, Jodi Ziesemer, said as she ushered children to the 14th floor before the hearings began. “Now they’re …” Her gaze swept the small group. Fernanda was gripping a green apple with both hands, occasionally taking a bite. As they moved down the hallway, her caseworker picked her up and carried her toward court.
In a spotlessly bright waiting room, Ms. Ziesemer’s colleague, Miguel Medrano, spent a few minutes trying to prepare Fernanda for court. He bent low to talk to her, asking her name, her age, whether she spoke English or Spanish. “Sí?” he prompted her. No response. He shook his head. “Well, if she can’t, she can’t.” He turned back to her and tried again in English. “So we’re going to see the judge,” he said gently. No response.
“She’s very shy,” the caseworker said.
Inside the courtroom, Judge Zagzoug picked up the day’s juvenile detained docket. “It’s Sept. 27, 2018, and this is Judge Randa Zagzoug,” she said for the record. She introduced Ms. Ziesemer, who grinned and waved and nodded at each child as he or she came up to the respondents’ table, and the Department of Homeland Security lawyer, who did not look over from the government’s table. The judge tried to explain the proceedings to each child who sat before her, facing the gold-fringed American flag.