A Sea of Lost Souls:
One Day in Miami’s Immigration Court

A personal reflection from Janet Horman, Attorney and Executive Director for South Florida Justice for Our Neighbors 

It has been almost 20 years to the day since I began to practice immigration law. Over the years I have made more trips to immigration court than I can count. This afternoon’s experience in Miami, however, was like nothing I have ever seen.

The complexity of immigration law baffles us all. But the unrepresented mothers in court that day looked dazed, frightened, and utterly lost. Most appeared unable to read any of the documents they had dutifully brought with them. They had traveled to court from Naples and Bonita Springs—a minimum of two hours driving time from Miami. Now they struggled to contain fussy infants and wriggling toddlers while desperately straining to understand the judge’s questions.

mother-with-sleeping-child-immigration-courtAt one point, I leapt up to catch an unsteady toddler who had escaped his mother’s lap and was heading for the judge’s bench. The judge waved me forward.

“This lady is going to take care of your little boy while we talk,” he told the anxious mother. I remained in the courtroom, trying to keep the toddler occupied while his mother had her hearing.

Another mother and school-age son had moved recently and had no idea of their new address. The judge patiently allowed the opposing attorney (from Immigration and Customs Enforcement)  to look through the plastic bag of papers the woman had brought with her to determine whether she had received a Notice to Appear, a charging document which marks the beginning of removal (deportation) proceedings.

We—South Florida JFON—were there to represent another mother and her baby. The mother, a victim of horrific violence, had fled her home country for her safety and that of her child.

I cannot begin to describe how difficult it would be for even the most patient and fair judge to get through the preliminary hearings that were before the court on this particular afternoon. I am proud of our country’s tradition of holding court with standards of fundamental fairness and due process. Essential to achieving this standard is assuring that those brought before the court understand the nature of the proceedings.

Since immigration law violations are considered to be civil and not criminal violations, persons before the immigration courts are not provided counsel if they cannot afford such help. They are given a list of free or low-cost attorneys/nonprofits, but at this point, even the largest nonprofit agencies in Miami have waiting lists of over 500 people.

It was excruciating for me to sit back and not rush forward to volunteer to represent those in need at today’s hearing. But our caseload is full, too. Every week, we receive calls from people desperate for help. Sadly, we are forced to turn them away.

South Florida JFON's Site Attorney and Executive Director Janet Horman is also a UMC Pastor. Here she is with Daniel, a client who has just received his green card.
South Florida JFON’s Site Attorney and Executive Director Janet Horman is also a United Methodist Pastor. Here she is with Daniel, a client who has just received his green card.

After 20 years in immigration law, I am still surprised when new arrivals to the United States have never seen a water fountain or been in an elevator. Our way of life is so foreign to them in every way. How can they possibly navigate through our courts without legal counsel?

Providing court-appointed representation for low-income persons in immigration court would be expensive but cost-effective in the long run. There is already a tremendous backlog of cases. Each unrepresented person triples the time it takes the judge to hear a case, adding to that backlog.  Attorneys help streamline the process. They can prepare the client before she makes her appearance in court. The necessary documents and information are at hand. The client has been briefed on what to expect. The judge is allowed to conduct hearings in an orderly and efficient manner.

I am thankful for the many judges and government employees who do their best to treat people with respect and dignity. I am thankful for the gift of relationships with our clients who have lost so much, and yet, who have taught me so much about strength, kindness and generosity. Most of all, I am thankful to the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church and others who make the JFON ministry of hospitality and service to our immigrant neighbors possible.