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Toddlers fend for themselves in immigration court thanks to Trump

Shoes and toys left at a port of entry to the U.S. in Tornillo, Texas. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There is a problem in the courtroom.

The hearing cannot begin until the subject standing before the court is seated.

But she needs help to sit in the chair at the table.

Her legs are too short to reach the chair.

Maria is 2.

Her volunteer attorney reaches down and gently lifts her into the chair. She is handed a stuffed owl that she hugs during the first of two hearings deciding her fate.

At the same table is another respondent who is better prepared. He climbs into the chair by himself and passes on the offering of a stuffed bear. He has his eye on a little Matchbox car that he pushes and pulls across the table as the hearing progresses.

Hamilton is 4.

These two toddlers, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, are the victims of “zero tolerance,” a policy under the Trump administration that forcibly separated children from their parents when they came to the southern border of the United States.

OPINION

According to official estimates, Maria and Hamilton are two of the nearly 2,700 minors who were taken into custody by our government. These little kids were transported from California and Texas to Chicago, thousands of miles away from their mothers and fathers. In a matter of days, they were moved from the dry and deadly desert of Northern Mexico to the bureaucratic sea of the United States, from the protective arms of their parents to a courtroom crowded with strange faces in a high-rise building in downtown Chicago.

Though President Trump officially revoked his family separation policy weeks ago, the administration reported on August 9 that there are still more than 500 children who have not been reunited with their parents despite an order from a federal judge mandating reunification. Some of the parents have been deported. Some, such as the parents of these two toddlers, are being investigated.

The administration also reported that there are at least 70 children for whom they either cannot yet identify a relative or have not yet contacted a relative. All of these children lurch from hearing date to hearing date in our broken immigration system.

The judge in this particular immigration courtroom is Jennie L. Giambastiani, a jurist with 16 years on the bench who knows well the Byzantine laws and procedures that decide the fate of these toddlers — toddlers whom the government now deems “unaccompanied children” because they were forcibly separated from their families at the border. Presiding in a compact, windowless courtroom, she sits in her black robe before an imposing seal of the United States Department of Justice.

You sense immediately that she is a caring person as she waits patiently for Maria to get a helping hand into her chair and compliments a 5-year-old little girl on her pretty dress. She worries about a 17-year-old who is only days away from turning 18 and crossing into a new legal status because he will no longer be a minor.

As she waits for a Portuguese translator, she playfully chides a familiar teenage boy, saying that by now his English has progressed to a point where he doesn’t need help. On this morning, nearly every case before her is continued for four months until the next hearing. “Waiting for documents” is a phrase repeated over and over.

The hallways outside the courtroom are packed with lawyers and respondents waiting for their hearing. Judge Giambastiani has a lengthy docket posted. The system has been swamped by the Trump administration’s decision to indiscriminately target immigrants for removal rather than focus limited resources and personnel on those who are truly dangerous.

The immigration system in America is crying out for comprehensive reform: 11 million remain undocumented, including more than 800,000 young people with DACA cast adrift by the Trump administration’s decision to abolish the program; more than 300,000 are losing their Temporary Protected Status due to the Administration’s order; more than 500 children remain separated from their families; refugee admissions are at their lowest level in decades despite an unprecedented global refugee crisis; and immigration reforms needed for agriculture and business are stalled.

Earlier this year, President Trump stopped the only bipartisan effort in the Senate to address many of these serious challenges, and his own bill was rejected in the Senate by a 39-60 bipartisan vote.

While the immigration chaos builds, 2-year-old Maria waits for her next court appearance five days before Christmas.

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois is a ranking member of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee. He observed immigration court proceedings in Chicago on Aug. 9.

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