A 1-year old boy named Johan was brought before an immigration judge in Phoenix last week, dressed in a green button-down shirt and drinking bottled milk.
He played with a green ball, cried and asked for “agua,” wall while waiting for the session to begin.
Judge John W. Richardson, presiding over the Arizona courtroom, was described by the Associated Press as hardly able to “contain his unease” with the situation and its legalistic oddity. The uncomfortable feeling rose when Richardson was compelled to ask whether Johan could understand the proceedings.
“I’m embarrassed to ask it, because I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year old could learn immigration law,” Richardson told the 1-year old’s lawyer.
Johan, writes NPR, had been separated from his father. The pair had been traveling to their home country of Honduras.
The 1-year old was one of several immigrant children appearing in court without their parents present.
Among the other defendants, NPR reports, were a ‘Guatemalan boy dressed in a vest who “simply put five fingers up” when asked his age, and an acquiescent 7-year-old-girl in a pink bow and dress.”
Johan and his counterparts are among hundreds of children who need to be reunited with their parents. Most were separated after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, either illegally or with the intent of filing asylum applications stateside. A so-called “zero-tolerance policy” enacted by the Trump administration termed such separations an ‘incentive’ not to break immigration law.
Pictures of wailing children, some purportedly locked in cage-like facilities, brought increased pressure on President Trump to effect reform.
The commander-in-chief said he’d encourage legislation posing a permanent fix to the issue—one which began under his predecessor, Barack Obama, but was implemented with increased frequency after Trump’s inauguration.
Meanwhile, a judge ordered the federal government to cease its separation practices. In his June ruling, Judge Dana M. Sabraw ordered that families torn apart by “zero-tolerance” be reunited within the coming month. For children five years and younger, like Johan, the deadline is July 10th.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that agency personnel are using DNA samples to ‘verify family relations.’ Reuters and NPR report that Azar’s been directing some parents to be moved closer to their children, to make reunification easier before the deadline arrives.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration has asked for more time, despite its claim to be working “diligently” and with “immense resources” to comply with the court order.
The American Civil Liberties Union notes that asylum and immigration cases involving undocumented children are often complex. Following a panel ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, “it is not established law that alien minors are categorically entitled to government-funded, court-appointed counsel.”
The hearings in Phoenix were held among nationwide protests, most of which were sparked by the family separations controversy. In its wake, some Democratic politicians—ranging from expected congressional entrants to veteran senators—have begun calling for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) demanded that the department be replaced “with something that reflects our morality.”