NEW YORK (AP) — A federal immigration court in Manhattan that usually deals with fewer than 100 new children's cases a month is getting a lot busier.
Twenty-nine unaccompanied minors appeared Wednesday morning before Judge James Loprest, Jr., some with attorneys, others with family by their sides. Six-year-old Gabriela and her brother Brandon Lopez, 15, were among the minors hoping to be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally.
The siblings participated in the first day of surge docket hearings at federal immigration court. The "surge docket" is an initiative by the federal government to help expedite the legal process for the more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have been processed into the system since October.
The minors are fleeing poverty, gang-violence and death, say advocates from the New York chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
AILA is one of five groups handling unaccompanied minor cases. The others are the Legal Aid Society and nonprofits Catholic Charities, Safe Passage, and The Door. The groups have been preparing for a surge in cases since they learned 3, 347 unaccompanied minors had arrived in the state since January. New York is second to Texas with the most cases.
"We want to make sure we know what the process looks like," said Jojo Annobil, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society.
The groups will take on daily surge dockets through the end of August with an average of 30 cases per day. They initially shared a responsibility of one docket per month per group. Next week alone, AILA will take on two surge dockets, which is 65 new cases in just one day.
"We're all still responsible for our monthly juvenile dockets, as well," said Veronica Vadia Morgenstern, 25, who runs the AILA docket.
This is good news for children like Jhovany Ortega, 11, who also arrived in May and preparing to start his life in the United States.
Jhovany, like the Lopez siblings, also came alone to the U.S. to reunite with family. And like Gabriela, he also was left behind in El Salvador by his parents when just a baby.
"We knew each other over the phone and over Skype," said his mother, Enma De Jesus, 32, who lives on Long Island.
"Christmas and then birthdays — those days were the hardest to be apart," said Jhovany, in his native Spanish.
Poverty and a lack of opportunity were initial reasons for leaving, added De Jesus, who has been in the U.S. for nearly 10 years.
Gabriela and Brandon needed to leave their home country to get away from extortionists, said their father, 35-year-old Emerson Lopez.
"I began to hear rumors that they were going start charging rent for each head," Lopez said, referring to his children.
"In my home country, they call them 'heads.' They treat people as if they are cattle, and that's when my wife and I made the decision to send for them," he said.