Shifting Immigration Sands Catches NC Teen in Kafka-esque Purgatory

For one North Carolina teen, seeing his mom again meant a difficult, six-month journey through ICE, the courts and the ever shifting immigration waters. Having fled two powerful Honduran gangs – Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang – seeking to add him to their ranks, Wildon Acosta became the face of the immigration crisis for the small Durham community who rallied to support his cause.

ABC News Reports (8/16/16): Masked members of the 18th Street gang give a press conference inside the San Pedro Sula prison in Honduras, May 28, 2013.

ABC News Reports (8/16/16): Masked members of the 18th Street gang give a press conference inside the San Pedro Sula prison in Honduras, May 28, 2013.

Part of the ongoing Border Kids crisis, Acosta feared the consequences of not joining one of the two gangs. ABC News recently reported, “Those two gangs are major contributors to the violence that has made Honduras the country with the highest homicide rate in the world according to the World Bank, forcing thousands to flee their homes. The government of Honduras, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency, estimates that 174,000 people were internally displaced within the country between 2004 and 2014 because of violence and insecurity.”

When federal agents arrested him on his way to school, the story continued, Acosta had gone from speaking only Spanish to earning a B average in English-only courses. He was even held a part-time job.

Acosta is hardly the only minor fleeing the violence, either, to build a new life here in the U.S. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that more than 63,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended while attempting to cross the border between October 2013 and September 2014 as the gang violence was reaching a crescendo in Central America.

The issue of overhauling the immigration system has been on the front burner since George W. Bush was president. A former Governor of a border state, President Bush attempted to overhaul the system under his tenure, but was blocked by his own party. Subsequent attempts have come close, but real reform has failed each time.

In 2014, President Barack Obama announced he was using his executive order power to bring about sweeping immigration changes. During his tenure, he has stepped up deportations, putting Border Kids at the front of the line, while also attempting to protect so-called DREAMERs. His executive orders have been stayed by the courts as states challenged his authority to implement immigration changes by executive order.

This policy uncertainty has led to myriad stories of young people caught in a shifting web of changing rules, leading to a legal purgatory that Kafka would find surreal. Were it not for the community pressuring their local member of Congress to act on his behalf, Acosta would have been deported already. With $10,000 in bail money raised in two days, he is grateful to back in his community with his family, but his future remains uncertain as he works to file a petition for asylum. The support from his community undoubtedly means that he will have legal representation to aid him in making his case to become a legal, permanent resident of the U.S.

For minors and youth with legal representation, their chances of being granted asylum are significantly better. But, as we reported back in May, Sen. Patrick Leahy said, “In immigration court, in case after case, a trained federal prosecutor represents the interests of the government while too many children facing deportation are forced to proceed before a judge without a lawyer.”

For more on the Acosta case, be sure to check out the in-depth ABC News report. You can follow along with our two-year project tracking the Border Kids crisis here.

California budget raid jeopardizes Modesto courthouse construction funding

A decision by California lawmakers to raid $1.4 billion from the judicial system during the budget crisis is having a direct impact on a $267 million courthouse construction project in Modesto, according to the ModBee. With 23 courthouse construction projects in the works across the state, the budget raid could have implications well beyond the city borders.

As budgets have become constrained, courthouses have closed, forcing existing courthouses to renovate to accommodate the influx of new cases. Brandi Christensen, facilities support service manager for Stanislaus County Superior Court told the Bee, “We don’t have an inch to move. Our courtrooms are packed every day.”

In addition to lack of space, many courthouses have fallen into deep disrepair from age. In the case of the Modesto courthouse, the Bee reports, “The most modern part of the current courthouse — which houses the courtrooms — was built in 1960. The other half of the courthouse was built in 1871 and remodeled in 1939. The courthouse has no holding cells for inmates, who are kept in jury rooms before their court appearances.”

The Judicial Council of California’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee met on June 28th in San Francisco to go over courthouse construction funding, and found it is coming up short. Very short. The Council directed the staff to develop funding recommendations, in concert with  the Department of Finance, in advance of their next meeting August 4th.

We’ll continue to follow the story, and you can get caught up with full details at the full Modesto Bee article here.

Florida Court District Says Divorce Hearing Can Take A Year

Courts nationwide are facing serious rationing, but a Tampa-area regional justice system is offering some details of its crisis. The info came as county commissioners are debating new facilities. But the area’s chief judge says that won’t help much because “… we can build additional courtrooms but nothing’s going to happen unless we have more judges to oversee them… we haven’t had a new judge in 10 years. Get the (state) Legislature to give us more judges.”

At issue is Florida’s 6th Judicial Circuit, which serves fast-goring Pasco and Pinellas counties The Tampa Bay Tribune explained that the district is “Florida’s third-largest court system. It has 69 judges to oversee all criminal, civil, appellate, family, traffic and small claims court cases. There are seven county court judges and 13 circuit judges assigned to handle cases at the New Port Richey and Dade City courthouses. In 2013 — the most recent figures available — those 20 Pasco County judges handled 24,069 circuit court cases and 41,733 county court cases. And the caseload keeps growing.”

One judge told county officials that it takes a year just to get a hearing on a divorce case

See more at the Tampa Tribune. 

Are Unaccompanied ‘Border Kids’ Now The ‘New Normal’?

In a story over the Christmas weekend, the Dallas Morning News cited the increase in unaccompanied minors showing up at the United State’s southern border. Along with statistics indicating that the influx has doubled compared to recent years, the story quoted  U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske saying “… the concerning part is, are we seeing the new normal?”
 
The situation has already prompted new shelters, a response from local charities trying to assist families and other efforts.
 

WSJ Report Outlines Delays For Federal Civil Court Dockets

Detailing the case of a man awaiting his day in court since 2007, the Wall Street Journal notes that the example is only one of “… more than 330,000 such cases” and that “… thee number of cases awaiting resolution for three years or more exceeded 30,000 for the fifth time in the past decade.”
 
The report gives reasons, and makes the case that the civil justice system slows when the criminal justice system gets busy: “… the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases. But the Sixth Amendment gives people in criminal cases the right to a “speedy” trial. The upshot: Criminal cases often displace and delay civil disputes, creating a backlog.”
 
It also says that “… federal court for California’s Eastern District [where the example case is located] has a particularly deep backlog. The number of cases filed per judge, 974 last year, is almost twice the national average. More than 14% of civil cases in that district have been pending for three years or more.” The report outlines the political challenges to fixing the tardy system. Read the WSJ story here: In Federal Courts, the Civil Cases Pile Up

IVP Conference: CA Courts Filling With Out-of-State Cases

A recent conference hosted by the Independent Voter Project in California hit upon an issue we’ve been reporting on repeatedly here at CCM. California courts are filling with a backlog of out-of-state cases, as class action lawsuits fill the courts. This, in turn, is buckling the limited resources of the court system, leaving California residents either without nearby courts, or pushing their cases to the back of the line. 

The conference focused on business interests, specifically, but a recent blog they posted noted that businesses are being impacted, alongside residents:

“The fairly recent development of mass-action lawsuits conglomerate residents of multiple states into one lawsuit. Usually it is filed in California due to plaintiff-friendly court policies. Consequently, California courts are filling up with lawsuits where many plaintiffs are not CA residents and don’t receive adequate legal representation.”

Read more here.

Florida Bar President Says Legal Representation Is A ‘Crisis’

 
The recent economic downturn and increased housing evictions are a couple of the reasons that Florida Bar President Ray Abadin says the inability of the majority of Floridians to afford legal representation is at “crisis proportions.” In a Tampa Tribune story, she says that “… not having professional legal representation can have dramatic adverse consequences in any situation. It can be devastating to one person; it can have life implications for families. Not having a lawyer can be a very serious thing.”
 
The Tribune notes that Abadin sits on the Florida Commission for Access to Civil Justice, “… which recently submitted its first report to the state Supreme Court offering suggestions for addressing the need, including a possible way to fund legal services.” Senior Judge Emerson R. Thompson Jr., the immediate past president of the state Bar Foundation, explains in the Trib’s report that “… the foundation’s main source of funds to pay for legal aid, interest on attorney trust accounts, sank from $22 million to $5 million. At the same time, thousands of Floridians faced foreclosure proceedings, threatened with losing their houses and needing legal representation.
 

Lawyers Fight Bail Inequality By Filing More, Smaller Cases

The New York Times has a story about how some lawyers are battling bail inequality by filing small-town lawsuits, forcing policy changes one town at a time – but hoping to spark wider reforms. The NYT reports that there are many cases that illustrate the problem among the nation’s 15,000 trial courts, and both local and national groups are “… waging a guerrilla campaign to reverse what they consider unconstitutional but widespread practices that penalize the poor. These include jail time for failure to pay fines, cash and property seizure in the absence of criminal charges, and the failure to provide competent lawyers.”
 
This story is part of a significant trend toward reforming that limbo where “civil” cases, like fines and potential property seizure, evolve into situations where people can be arrested. Read it here: Court by Court, Lawyers Fight Policies That Fall Heavily on the Poor.

NY Times Opinion Piece Makes ‘Civil Gideon’ Argument

Image published as part of a New York Times OpEd, "How to Fight Homelessness" published 10/19.

Image published as part of a New York Times OpEd, “How to Fight Homelessness” published 10/19.

A New York Times op-ed piece by a NY City Council member and a homeless advocate is making the case for legal representation for some civil cases. It is an argument about reducing the homeless population. They note that something like 80 percent of people facing eviction remain in their home if they have an attorney. They say that the advantage of legal representation is such that some landlords just don’t bother following through if the tenant has an attorney.
 
Council Member Mark D. Levine, representing the city’s Seventh District and Mary Brosnahan, who is  president and chief executive of the Coalition for the Homeless, continue making a financial argument: “It costs about $2,500 to provide a tenant with an attorney for an eviction proceeding, while we spend on average over $45,000 to shelter a homeless family.”
 
Read their argument here: How to Fight Homelessness

Texas To Rule On Civil Fees Issue

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to hear a case this week that might clarify when local courts can force poor plaintiffs to pay fees. The Texas Tribune news website explains that”… in 2012, six plaintiffs from Tarrant County sued the local district court clerk for charging them court fees even after they filed affidavits of their indigent status — also known as ‘pauper petitions’ — when they filed for divorce. But the clerk says final divorce decrees require that each party pay its share of the court costs.” 
 
The Tribune report also placed the issue in some context: “… court costs and fines surfaced as one of the more pressing criminal justice issues in the aftermath of the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. While a grand jury cleared the officer, Darren Wilson, of criminal wrongdoing, a subsequent U.S. Department of Justice report revealed how the police department in Ferguson wrote more tickets for mostly poor African Americans than any other ethnic group. Following the shooting of Brown, federal investigators found that Ferguson relied on municipal ticketing and fines as a revenue generator for the city’s budget.”