AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - A federal class action claims that immigration officials illegally deny the Special Immigrant Juvenile applications of abused and neglected refugee children by saying they are no longer children, though the Texas Family Code says they are.
Deepak Budhathoki et al. sued the Department of Homeland Security, DHS Director Jeh Johnson, Citizenship and Immigration Service Director Leon Rodriguez, and USCIS San Antonio Field Office Director Mario R. Ortiz on Tuesday, under the Administrative Procedure Act.
David Walding, director of the Bernard Kohler Center, which represents the plaintiffs, told Courthouse News the legal violations stem from the federal government's efforts to deport Central American children, who have fled to the United States in increasing numbers due to violence from police and criminal gangs.
Immigration agencies have expedited children's cases since at least 2014, Walding said.
The drive to deport child refugees reached ridiculous proportions last week when the Washington Post and Boston Globe revealed that a senior official in the Department of Justice said that 3- and 4-year-old children can learn enough immigration law to represent themselves in court.
Jack H. Weil, a longtime immigration judge who now trains other immigration judges, made the comments in a deposition for a federal case in Seattle.
"I've taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds," Weil said. "It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It's not the most efficient, but it can be done," according to the Washington Post.
To make sure there was no mistake, the Post said, citing Weil's deposition, he repeated the claim: "I've told you I have trained 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in immigration law. You can do a fair hearing. It's going to take you a lot of time."
Weil's comments spurred outrage in Congress.
"I've never heard such a stupid, stupid thing," Sen. Patrick Leahy said Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Leahy, of Vermont, is the senior Democrat on the committee and the former head of it. He made the comment to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was called to answer why children were being forced to represent themselves in immigration courts.
Lynch dodged the question, according to The New York Times, and after a few more unsuccessful attempts to get an answer, Leahy gave up.
In the new case, filed March 8, the three named plaintiffs seek to represent a class of "All unmarried persons whose applications for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status were denied or will be denied by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) because the required Texas court dependency order ('Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship' or SAPCR) became final after the person turned 18 years."
The plaintiffs, all under 21, obtained SAPCR orders from Texas courts finding "they have been subjected to abandonment, abuse or neglect by one or more parent; that reunification with one or more parent is not viable based on that abandonment, abuse or neglect; and that return to the plaintiff's country of origin is not in the best interests of the child."
They cite a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, stating there were 53,515 unaccompanied minors in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody in 2014, of whom 7,409 were released to sponsors in Texas.