As her four sisters sat quietly near her in a room at the Baltimore Immigration Court, the 8-year-old girl played with a green bendable toy bunny given to her by an attorney — “Bendy,” children before her had named it.

The bunny came out of a drawer filled with other toys meant to calm nervous children.

“We have some superheroes,” Cate Scenna told the youngest girl, her hair in pigtails with pink hair clips. “Although I think the kids are the superheroes for being so resilient,” Scenna said out loud to herself.

The girl fidgeted with the bunny’s arms. Her shoulders relaxed as she calmed down. The sisters from El Salvador, ages 8 to 17, were in court after being separated from their father. They had just been reunited after a year, having crossed the border separately, three by themselves. Now, they feared losing each other again.

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It was the beginning of a long path to convince an immigration judge to allow them to stay in the United States.

The sisters are among more than 43,000 children who traveled to the United States unaccompanied from October 2023 to January of this year, entering the immigration system on their own. The experience can be daunting and traumatic for children who don’t speak English or understand complex immigration proceedings. They usually cannot afford an attorney and attend hearings on their own.

But efforts are underway to make the process more humane. New guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice created specialized dockets for children and calls on judges, who hear both child and adult cases, to give special consideration to unaccompanied minors and to be more lenient with courtroom procedures. The directive comes as the federal government recognizes the “special nature of children’s cases,” according to the guidance.

Judges must now use age-appropriate questions, watch their expressions and language, and be patient. The guidance also encourages judges to allow children to visit the courtroom before a hearing so they feel more comfortable.

Some of this work was already being done in Baltimore, a sanctuary city that welcomes immigrants. Advocates and attorneys have worked for years to facilitate proceedings for unaccompanied children with legal representation and improve their experience in court.

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Kelly Nance, regional public information officer at the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said juvenile-dedicated judges in the Baltimore Immigration Court are already applying many of the “best practices” identified in the Justice Department’s memo. Advocates agreed.

“Baltimore immigration judges are solicitous of unaccompanied children’s special needs and situations,” Bill Meyer, an attorney, said.

What immigration data tells us

For the last decade, children have been traveling to the U.S. southwest border in record numbers, with more than 34,000 unaccompanied children arriving in Maryland since October 2014. Two years into the Biden administration, one in three new immigration cases was for a person under 18; most of those cases were children under 4. Many made the trip from Mexico and the region known as the Northern Triangle — the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

An increasing number are starting immigration proceedings without legal representation. The rate of people with attorneys dropped from 65% in 2019 of all cases to 30% last December, according to data from TRAC, a data research and data distribution organization at Syracuse University. While counsel is guaranteed in criminal prosecutions, these protections do not apply in immigration courts, which are considered civil proceedings.

In Baltimore, the share of asylum seekers who met a judge without an attorney varied greatly. Some judges presided over cases where 27% of asylum seekers did not have an attorney, while the numbers were 0.8% to 8.8% for others.

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It’s unclear how many of these migrants are children. But a 2021 report on unaccompanied children by the Congressional Research Service showed outcomes varied considerably whether children had an attorney. From October 2017 to March 2021, 37% of children with representation had to leave the country, compared to 90% of those without attorneys who were deported.

Maryland courts have among the highest rates of representation at 38%, but even that is low. As cases pile up to 35,056 in the Baltimore court alone, fewer immigration attorneys are available — especially as the court adds more judges to ease case backlog.

In Baltimore, Meyer sees that the system is overwhelmed and cases are being set up further into the future. He is seeing paperwork with hearings in 2025 and 2026.

‘That’s not good’

In a hearing in December, a boy struggling to speak English told the judge his attorney was not there. He had tried to reach her but only talked to her paralegals.

“That’s not good,” the judge said, calling the attorney’s office on file. She told the person on the line, “Tell her [the attorney] her client is in court and she is not — obviously.”

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Once the attorney picked up, the judge told her she should have asked to postpone the hearing. The attorney hesitated briefly before apologizing and saying there was no record she was still the boy’s attorney.

“Now I’m confused,” the judge said. “You are still the attorney on record, so you are still his attorney.”

“I agree, Your Honor,” the attorney finally said.

“Good,” the judge said. “You need to be in touch with your client so he knows what is going on.”

Under the new guidance aimed at people under 21, the Executive Office for Immigration Review asked judges to facilitate pro bono representation for unaccompanied children. Judges should also ease courtroom procedures to make children more comfortable — for example, removing their robe and allowing children to remain seated next to an adult they trust rather than testifying on the witness stand. A child should also be allowed to bring a toy or a book.

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The changes are a step in the right direction, said Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense. The guidance reverses setbacks from the Trump administration, which had judges take a more “suspicious posture,” Podkul said. Courts under the Obama administration were somewhat child friendly, but it was not across the board.

The memo reinforced the model Podkul’s group has been advocating, in which judges set aside a separate docket for unaccompanied minors, government lawyers get special training on how to manage children’s cases and someone in the courthouse screens kids and makes referrals to attorneys who can handle their cases.

Baltimore court, Podkul said, has a head start. She added, “if Baltimore is ahead of the curve, how can we use what they’re doing to help the other courts who are trying to stand it up?”

The guidance, however, is not permanent and can change depending on the administration. A bill introduced last November would establish a children’s court.

“It’s important that they robustly roll this out so that it has longevity,” Podkul said.

‘We take what we can get’

One group — attorneys with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland — has established a presence on the fourth floor of the George Fallon Federal Building, where the immigration court in Baltimore is located. This is where the five Salvadoran sisters waited.

In 2014, the group began training attorneys on the basics of immigration law, said Sharon Goldsmith, the center’s executive director. It set up a program with the court to interact with children who needed assistance, Goldsmith said.

Attorneys were stationed in the building’s cafeteria, stopping people on their way in and out. While organizations such as Esperanza Center and Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition have supported immigrants in Baltimore for years, there was a need for specialized aid for children, said Scenna, the attorney with the Pro Bono Resource Center.

In 2019, when the room on the fourth floor became available after building renovations, the group asked if it could take it. The room is small. There are two tables, a file cabinet and chairs. And nothing else.

“We take what we can get,” Scenna said.

Judges have been generally receptive to the clinic, Scenna said. Some have instructed children to go to the clinic’s room or allowed attorneys to do a quick presentation about their rights. The attorneys talk to the children about their parents, whether the kids have been abandoned or neglected, or were harmed because of their identity — for instance, beaten for being gay.

Bill Meyer was among the attorneys who worked with the Salvadoran sisters.

“Has anyone been in contact with your father?” he asked them when they were in the room.

The girls looked to one of the sisters who spoke the most English. She quickly translated the question. They shook their heads. After the sisters crossed the border, they were placed in a detention center in Texas, in a town whose name they don’t remember.

When a child without a guardian is apprehended, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has up to 72 hours to transfer custody to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Office of Refugee Resettlement will find them a sponsor. The sisters were eventually placed in Baltimore with a family member.

But legal representation is not guaranteed. Scenna and Meyer triage. They evaluate whether migrants qualify for asylum or other visas. Then they check with their network and other nonprofits to see if an attorney can take the case pro bono.

Krish Vignarajah, president of Global Refuge, has worked with unaccompanied children since 2013. It’s a challenge to ensure the children receive the services they need, she said.

“So many of these families really, financially, don’t have the ability to pay the full cost of an attorney for representation, and that is probably the hardest part — to know that we can do so many things but the thing that ultimately will determine whether or not they’re able to stay here and to stay in safety is legal representation,” she added.

Back in the room in the Baltimore Immigration Court, Meyer told the sisters to leave their case to him. He would connect them with an attorney.

Meyer planned to refer the case notes to an organization that does this kind of work.

By the end of their proceeding, the sisters seemed more at ease. They walked out of the room, hungry. They wanted to eat pupusas.

The youngest sister stopped Meyer on the way out. She asked him for a hug.

This story is published in partnership with The Baltimore Banner as part of the Baltimore News Collaborative, a project exploring the challenges and successes experienced by young people in Baltimore. The collaborative is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ( News members of the collaborative retain full editorial control.

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR.

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