(CNSNews.com) -- Seventeen-year-old Cristian stepped through the swinging wooden door separating the crowded waiting area from the judge’s bench, straightening his slightly-too-big dress shirt as he slid behind the defendant's desk. As his lawyer took the seat beside him, Cristian slipped on the court-provided headphones so he could hear the Spanish-speaking translator as his lawyer began to speak.
After a few pleasantries, Cristian’s lawyer told Immigration Judge John M. Bryant that his client conceded to the charge of being an undocumented alien in the United States and was subject to potential removal. Cristian wanted to plead for asylum for “protection from torture,” and “declined to state his country of removal at this time,” the lawyer added.
Within a minute, Bryant had accepted the plea and scheduled a hearing in which the court will determine if Cristian is eligible to receive asylum. The date was set for June 11, 2018.
“Are you available that day?” Bryant jokingly asked the lawyer.
“I don’t have my 2018 calendar in front of me, but yes, I believe so,” the lawyer responded.
“Okay, good. Have a good school year,” Bryant told Cristian. “I’ll see you in a few years, okay?”
The entire ordeal was over in less than five minutes.
The revolving door of the U.S. immigration system was in constant motion Tuesday morning in Courtroom 6 of the Arlington Immigration Court, as a steady stream of undocumented alien children piled in to the small space in hopes of being granted permission to stay in the United States.
Three cases were ready to plead for asylum, and all received hearing dates set for June, 2018.
By that time, all three children -- currently teenagers -- will be well into adulthood.
Most of the children had shown up for a “master hearing,” or a first appearance in court, and were not yet required to make an official plea.
To help put them at ease, Bryant began the long line of hearings by telling the assembled children that they were “special.”
“This is all about you,” he told the children. “You’re so special we have a docket just for you.”
Some of the children had arrived at court with a lawyer, while many had come with a parent or another family member. A few showed up with nothing more than a piece of paper they’d received in the mail telling them where to be and when.
Still others hadn't appeared at all.
The first child, a 10-year-old girl who had come across the U.S.-Mexico border only a few months ago, stepped forward with her lawyer. While the girl listened to the translator through the headphones, her lawyer explained she was now living in Norfolk with family. As in every other case, her lawyer declined to say what country the girl was from.
Bryant asked the girl what grade she was going into when school starts in September. “Fourth,” the girl replied in Spanish.
“So this is your first year in a school in the United States? Yes, because you just got here, right? Well, I hope you have a wonderful time,” Bryant told her.
Bryant issued a continuance of the girl’s case until Feb. 18 of next year, when she will be asked to come back to court and enter an official plea. After that, she will be given a third date to return with her lawyer and present her case for asylum.
Until then, she will live with her family in Norfolk and attend a public elementary school.
For the next two hours, child after child stepped behind the defendant’s desk to be heard. Only a handful spoke more than a few words of English, and only two appeared proficient.
Each individual hearing lasted an average of two to three minutes, with some over in seconds. In each case, the children were asked to come back in February to enter their plea, including any requests for asylum.
Though most had only been in the country a few months, the vast majority of the children had already been tested for placement at a local public school. Many were at least one academic year behind, with several 17-year-olds and one 18-year-old slated to go into the 9th grade. A few other 17-year-olds had been tested for 10th grade.
“It’s the four most exciting years of our lives, high school,” Bryant told 16-year-old Ana, who is heading into the 9th grade. “Don’t be scared. You’ll make lots of friends. I hope you have a good time.”
Several of the children were already 18, having presumably come across the border when they were minors. Bryant referred to these as the “senior juveniles.”
Since October of last year, more than 227,000 illegal aliens, including about 63,000 unaccompanied minors, have been apprehended at the Southwest U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported.
The Department of Health and Human Services reports more than 37,000 of these children have already been sent to live with sponsors in the United States, usually a family member, where they remain until their cases can be heard by an immigration judge. If they apply for asylum, the entire process will likely take years.
On Tuesday, those children who had come without a lawyer were told to pick up one of the simple white papers stacked on the desk outlining the “free” legal services they were eligible for, including a lawyer.
As 13-year-old Andrew’s father picked up a paper and glanced it over, Bryant asked Andrew what grade he was going to be in during the upcoming school year. Andrew told him, “7th.”
“It’s going to be fine,” Bryant assured him. ”A little scary, but it’s going to be okay. You’ll make friends and learn some stuff, then you’ll be part of the group."
Courtroom 6 was only one of several courtrooms hearing cases for unaccompanied minors Tuesday, with more scheduled for Wednesday morning. Within an hour, 16 children had been heard in that single courtroom, processed and dismissed – roughly one every four minutes.
By the time the last child was dismissed at 11 a.m., a total of 35 had been released.
CNSNews.com made multiple attempts to contact Judge Bryant to ask why asylum hearings were scheduled nearly 4 years in the future. Those calls were not returned.