Courts Prepare for Unaccompanied Minor Cases

This story originally published in Texas Lawyer on Feb. 12, 2015.

The “flood” of unaccompanied Central and South American children entering the U.S. last year has only trickled into Texas courts so far, although some experts are watching for a bigger rush further downstream.

Federal courts have jurisdiction over immigration, but state courts play a role in some unaccompanied minor cases. As the so-called surge of unaccompanied children dominated the headlines last summer, David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said he was afraid that state courts might get hit with thousands of cases at once.

“If that does happen, that will tax the system,” Slayton said, adding, “At this point, we are seeing them trickle into the system, and we believe if they continue in that fashion, we are probably able to handle it with existing judicial resources.”

But it’s possible that many cases haven’t made it to court yet, said 312th Family Court Judge David Farr of Houston. Six months after an unaccompanied child is relocated, the relative could file for conservatorship, he said. But Farr said he could imagine the scenario of an uncle who did not expect a nephew to come live with him, and who did not have money for an attorney.

“I might sit on that decision for a couple of years,” said Farr, adding, “At some point, they are going to hit a life jam, where they say, ‘I have to go to court.’”

In fiscal year 2014, the federal government apprehended 67,339 unaccompanied minors, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Some were sent home, but at least 51,705 were eligible for special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS), which grants asylum for unaccompanied children from countries that don’t touch the U.S.

Federal law requires state courts to handle the first step in SIJS cases.

A state court must determine whether an unaccompanied minor was abused, abandoned or neglected at home and whether it’s in the child’s best interests not to go back, explained Dana Leigh Marks, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

“The state courts are the experts on juveniles and what is in the best interest of the child,” Marks said, adding, “When Congress made that law, they realized it’s the state courts that have the experience and expertise to make those determinations.”

Ground Zero

In fiscal year 2014, 7,409 unaccompanied minors were relocated with friends or family in Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. Texas courts would be responsible for handling those cases. Among them, 4,028 young immigrants relocated to Harris County.

Farr, the administrative judge for Harris County’s family courts, noted that one of the county’s three juvenile courts handles SIJS cases.
The courts have handled 167 independently filed SIJS cases since July 15, 2014, he said. But Farr noted that Harris County courts have probably handled more, because SIJS cases can arise within other child custody matters.

“It’s more than we saw before this time last year. Significantly more, probably,” said Farr. “I don’t think it’s as big as we thought that it was going to be. We sat around a table in spring last year ,and I think the judges’ reaction was: ‘Well, here it comes.’”

SIJS cases are not too time-intensive for a judge.

Farr said that legal aid groups often represent unaccompanied minors. Normally, there is no opposing counsel. Farr said that a judge must review filings and hold a 20-30-minute hearing to take testimony from the child and listen to his lawyer’s arguments. He said he would often rule from the bench and sign proposed findings that the child’s lawyer filed.

“The challenge in Harris County, of course, is anything of length—anything of 30 minutes or more—you have to squeeze in with everything else you are doing,” Farr said, explaining that the family courts typically carry 2,000 cases. “We’ve had to maneuver and figure out how best to handle the cases in order not to have an adverse effect on our dockets.”

Docket Juggling

Federal immigration courts also struggle with juggling unaccompanied minor cases on their dockets.

After a state court issues findings, an unaccompanied minor must apply for SIJS status in immigration court. The federal government has ordered immigration judges to handle the children’s cases first, Marks said.

“The immigration courts are completely and utterly overwhelmed and overburdened,” she said, adding, “Older case are getting pushed aside and languishing on the docket to handle these cases of recently arrived juveniles in a quicker fashion.”

In the Texas-based immigration courts in fiscal year 2014, there were 70,099 pending cases involving immigration charges, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. People had to wait an average of 501 days just to get into court. In 2014, the Texas-based immigration courts completed 7,176 immigration cases. The average case took 193 days from filing to closure.

The numbers of juvenile immigration cases are growing. In fiscal year 2010, the Texas-based immigration courts handled only 1,622 juvenile immigration cases. In fiscal year 2014, they handled 10,654, which is more than a sixfold increase.

Finding time for SIJS cases could be a long-term issue.

“These children under federal law are allowed to seek the status up till they are 21 years old or they are deported from the country,” explained Slayton, adding, “The fastest-growing group of these children are over 12 years of age. This is not a short-term issue for us. We don’t expect this to be resolved quickly.”

One Texas Law School Is Doing the Heavy Lifting When It Comes to Diversity Efforts

Texas legal educators are striving to recruit racially and ethnically diverse law students, but there’s one law school that’s excelling hand-over-fist compared to the others.

With 91 percent of its current students hailing from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds, Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law takes the top spot when it comes to a diverse student body.

Texas Lawyer analyzed demographic data from the 10 Texas law schools and ranked them based on the percentage of minority students. Schools submit data annually to the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which is responsible for accrediting law schools.


PDF: One Texas Law School Is Doing the Heavy Lifting When It Comes to Diversity Efforts _ Texas Lawyer

Texas Law School Enrollment Outpaces National Percentage Growth

The size of this year’s entering class at Texas law schools rose by 4 percent this year compared to last, but total enrollment numbers for 2017 still dropped by 0.3 percent.

Legal educators closely watch the size of the first-year class, since it has financial implications for a law school for the next three years. There were 2,199 first-year law students at the 10 Texas law schools in the Fall of 2017, which is 89 students more than the Fall of 2016.


PDF: Texas Law School Enrollment Outpaces National Percentage Growth _ Texas Lawyer

Law School Enrollment Edges Up, with Surprise Spike in Non-JD Programs

Enrollment in law school J.D. programs dipped a tad this year, but some unexpected good news provided a counterbalance.

While J.D. enrollment fell by 0.7 percent compared with last year, the numbers of non-J.D. students—studying for LL.M., masters or certificate degrees—grew by a whopping 20.5 percent, compared with last year, according to data from the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which accredits U.S. law schools.

That means overall law school enrollment edged up by 1.6 percent to 126,638, which is 2,010 more students than last year. That total is made up of 110,156 J.D. students plus 16,482 non-J.D. students.


PDF: Law School Enrollment Edges Up, with Surprise Spike in Non-JD Programs _ Law

Law School Applications on the Rise

Just in time for the new year, law schools have cause to celebrate.

As of Dec. 1, the number of law school applicants was up by 12 percent to 16,784, compared with this time last year, while the number of applications was up by 15 percent to 93,932, according to the Law School Admission Council.

Granted, it might be too early in the application season to declare a definitive upward trend for the next academic year, since around this time last year, only 27 percent of the total applicants had submitted their applications.


PDF: Law School Applications on the Rise _ Law

Can the GRE Cure What Ails Law Schools?

As more law schools accept a new admissions test from aspiring law students, debate about their motives and whether they’ll meet their goals of diversifying the applicant pool has swirled behind the scenes.

Law deans hope to recruit a new type of law student by accepting applications that use Graduate Record Examination scores, rather than the traditional Law School Admission Test. Law schools, eyeing the extremely large group of GRE test takers, have seen a potential to improve not only the gender, racial and ethnic mix of law students, but also broader metrics such as socioeconomic status, educational backgrounds and professional experience. Particularly, law schools, which have seen the number of applicants decline and LSAT scores fall, want students who have studied or had careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a cohort that statistically has been shown to perform well in legal education.

Meanwhile, critics of the GRE cast doubts about whether the test is capable of increasing diversity along racial and ethnic lines, and question whether schools are trying to fill seats while gaming the law school ranking system.


PDF: Can the GRE Cure What Ails Law Schools_ _ Law

LSAT-Takers Trending Up Following 5-Year Plunge. Why?

A continuing surge in the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test this year provides another glimmer of hope to law schools that a drought in the applicant pool might be ending.

LSAT numbers have seen modest single-digit gains in the last two testing years, following a five-year decline in which the number of LSAT test-takers dropped by nearly 41 percent.

The trend upward is seen as welcome news for law schools—and the profession—since a bigger pool gives schools better odds for admitting more qualified applicants.

In September, 37,100 people took the LSAT, a 10.7 percent increase over September 2016. And in June, 27,600 people took the LSAT, a 19.8 jump compared with June 2016.


PDF: LSAT-Takers Trending Up Following 5-Year Plunge. Why_ _ Law