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We’re taking babies from their parents, and then asking them to defend themselves in court

"The child — in the middle of the hearing — started climbing up on the table."

U.S. Border Patrol agents take into custody a father and son from Honduras near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 near Mission, Texas. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)
U.S. Border Patrol agents take into custody a father and son from Honduras near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 near Mission, Texas. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

Every day, there are more reports of babies forcibly separated from their parents showing up in immigration court and going through deportation proceedings.

“The 1-year-old boy in a green button-up shirt drank milk from a bottle, played with a small purple ball that lit up when it hit the ground and occasionally asked for ‘agua,'” the Associated Press reported Saturday.

The scene made the Phoenix immigration judge uncomfortable when it came time to ask the defendant, a Honduran boy named Johan, whether he understood the proceedings.

“I’m embarrassed to ask it, because I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year-old could learn immigration law,” Judge John W. Richardson told the boy’s lawyer.

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Johan’s lawyer said that he was separated from his dad after they came to the United States, though it wasn’t clear when they were separated. The father is now in Honduras after being removed from the United States under the promise that he would be reunited with his son. Many migrants have been given similar false promises that their kids would be returned to them if they signed their own removal order.

Asking minors who immigrated to the United States to go through deportation proceedings alone isn’t a new practice. Kids going through deportation or asylum hearings are also not entitled to court-appointed lawyers. (Non-profit organizations and pro bono laywers try to give them legal representation instead.)

But in May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration’s “zero tolerance policy” on immigration would mean criminally prosecuting all adults crossing the U.S. border without documentation — thus forcibly separating families, since kids can’t be detained in jail. As a result of the administration’s family separation policy, there are now more babies and toddlers than ever in the system.

The reports are harrowing, and there are a lot of them.

“We were representing a 3-year-old in court recently who had been separated from the parents. And the child — in the middle of the hearing — started climbing up on the table,” Lindsay Toczylowski, the executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles, told Kaiser Health News last month. “It really highlighted the absurdity of what we’re doing with these kids.”

Trying to navigate the immigration system as a child is incredibly hard.

As CNN’s Tal Kopan reported,

When a child is apprehended at the border, they are turned over to [the Department of Health and Human Services] and eventually, in about 90% of cases, settled with a relative or family friend. They then are called to appear in immigration court for a “master calendar hearing,” the kickoff of their court proceedings.

Many of those children are likely to get a continuance from the judge to allow them time to find a lawyer, apply for asylum or apply for some other visa that protects children. Some, though, may have a hearing date set within a year to resolve their claim.

The process is a maze. For children, by law, asylum applications go to the Department of Homeland Security first, even as the Justice Department-run immigration courts consider whether to deport them. There are other visas, like the Special Immigrant Juvenile visa for neglected or abused children, that can send the kids to DHS and state courts. All while the immigration court continues to weigh whether or not to deport them.

It’s not clear how many kids separated from their parents have been placed in deportation proceedings. The Trump administration has refused to give an exact number of children taken from their parents since June 26. At that time, it estimated that 2,047 kids were separated.

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Johan was granted a voluntary departure order and the government will fly him to Honduras. An attorney with the Florence Project, an Arizona-based nonprofit that provides free legal aid to immigrants, said Johan’s mom and dad are both there.

Johan’s case took place on Friday, when the Trump administration argued that it needed more time to meet a court deadline to reunite kids under 5 years old with their parents. The court rejected the blanket request, instead saying that more time may be granted in certain cases.