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Reflections from a Volunteer Interpreter

Juan Daniel walks through the waiting area of the immigration courthouse dressed in blue jeans, light blue long-sleeved button down shirt, and black sneakers.  He wears a narrow dark blue tie that reaches to the top of his belly.  With court clothes that his family had stored in his back pack before he crossed the border, Juan Daniel came prepared to appear before a judge some day. 

Juan Daniel has thick black hair brushed forward towards his eyebrows.  He tilts his face downward and looks up at an angle with dark eyes open wide.  He carries court papers inside a manila envelope in his left hand.  His lips are slightly parted and show his two front teeth. 

Juan Daniel was separated from his father at the border.  His father has been deported to Honduras, but Juan Daniel is still here.  He is eight years old. 

The immigration courthouse for children sits about thirty yards removed from a main thoroughfare in Harlingen, Texas.  It is housed in a one-story building emulating the adobe structures that can be found throughout the southwestern United States.  The building is partially framed with red tiles.  There is no signage on the courthouse itself, but lettering on a short brick wall at the parking lot entrance identifies the location as a “U.S. Department of Justice Immigration Court.” 

Security officers staff a main entrance equipped with an x-ray machine and a metal detector.  Anyone who seeks entry must show an identification, place their belongings through the x-ray machine and cross the metal detector into a small lobby.  The lobby gives way to a waiting area surrounded with five courtrooms. 

The waiting area has rows of seats placed perpendicular to the walls, with a wide aisle between rows of seats to the left and rows of seats to the right.  Most of the persons in the waiting area are teenagers, with a mix of shelter house staff and support workers sprinkled among them.  Attorneys walk back and forth checking in with the children, trying to reassure them and to help the youth relax. 

Most attorneys work for the ABA Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), which serves adults and unaccompanied children pending immigration proceedings in the Rio Grande Valley. The majority of attorneys assigned to represent children are recent arrivals from Puerto Rico, having left the island in the aftermath of Hurricane María. 

There is a group of eleven teenagers sitting outside courtroom number three.  They are here for a mass initial hearing scheduled for the morning calendar.  The group is made up of ten boys and one girl. They all wear blue jeans and solid-colored shirts.  The girl has a clear quart-sized baggie resting on her lap with a sandwich and potato chips inside.  She is holding a water bottle with her left hand.  Everyone holds a manila envelope safeguarding their court papers.  

Juana Ballesteros, a legal assistant from ABA ProBAR, approaches the youth before calendar call.  She gives them an orientation about what to expect inside the courtroom.  She uses a large photograph of the courtroom to explain who will sit where and what their roles will be.  She asks them to pull out their notices to appear from the manila envelopes and verify that their names and birthdates are accurate.  She advises that they tell the judge whether any information on their forms needs to be corrected.   

Ballesteros then inquires whether the children speak Spanish or other languages.  Many of the youth brought to the courthouse speak indigenous or Mayan languages such as Q’anjob’ai, K’iche and Ixil.  When a boy raises his hand and says that he speaks Tzotzil, another Mayan language, she responds that he can request that an interpreter assist him.  She tells the youth that they can ask for more time to secure counsel when they appear before the judge. 

The immigration courtroom could be located in any family courthouse in the country.  It is a square space with three rows of wooden pews with a railing separating them from the well of the court.  The prosecutor sits at a table to the left and faces the bench, with her back towards the audience.  The children and their counsel will sit at a table to the right facing in the same direction.  The judge occupies a bench along the opposite wall facing counsel table and the rows of seats.  She has a courtroom clerk to her left and a Spanish-language interpreter to her right.   

The Department of Justice seal rises on the wall above the judge like a halo, its logo proclaiming in Latin “who prosecutes on behalf of justice.” 


Juan Daniel is the first case called.  He approaches counsel table with his ABA ProBAR attorney Shakira Rodríguez-Oliveras.  She carries an Animal Planet coloring book and a box of colored pencils.  She hands them to Juan Daniel as they take their seats.  He opens the book and starts to color the image of a seal.  He colors throughout the hearing, changing pencils while his lawyer answers the judge’s questions.  He does not speak at any point, trusting Rodríguez-Oliveras to represent his wishes.  

Juan Daniel received his notice to appear for immigration court on May 15, 2019.  His initial hearing is taking place more than three months later.  He has languished in shelter house placement the entire time.  He requests through his lawyer that he be sent back to Honduras.  He admits to entering the country without authorization.  He requests that he return to Honduras in no more than 60 days.   

The judge grants Juan Daniel’s request.  She says that ICE will have until late October to arrange for his voluntary departure.  He will likely travel on a commercial flight with a chaperone escorting him along the way.  His case is adjourned. 

Juan Daniel stands up from counsel table.  He heads for the courtroom door.  His lawyer walks next to him.  Another young ABA ProBAR attorney from Puerto Rico, Ángel Olivo-García, sits in the first row pew.  He extends his right fist to Juan Daniel for a bump.

Juan Daniel stops and bumps fists with Olivo-García.  Then he smiles.    

Do you want to bring your passion, skills, and experiences to an organization dedicated to empowering immigrants? ProBAR is seeking volunteers and is accepting applications for various positions. Meet our team and learn what ProBAR offers!