Immigration court on children's day: Nicole Castaneda imagines a better future

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Sixteen-year-old Nicole Castaneda had one request of the supporters who gathered in front of the Denver immigration court before her hearing: to sing John Lennon's "Imagine" because, as an advocate explained, Nicole wanted them to "imagine a world where kids could just be kids, without fear of deportation."

Nicole was one of dozens of children, some as young as eleven, whose cases were heard Thursday as part of the immigration court's juvenile docket. Many, like Nicole, had been caught at the border.

Nicole is from Peru. Her mother, Kelly Castaneda, came to the United States nearly nine years ago, leaving her daughter behind. Advocate Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee says that's common: Parents often cross the border first, thinking that they'll go back for their children once they get established. But because it's so risky to cross back and forth, many don't end up doing so.

"We're trapping people inside," Piper says.

Instead, parents often wait for their children to get older and then send for them. In Nicole's case, the teenager attempted to cross the border on June 22, 2013 -- and was detained by immigration officials in Arizona. She was classified as an "unaccompanied alien child" and sent to a shelter run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Nicole's mother, Kelly, eventually found her and brought her to Colorado, where she's been living with her mother, her mother's husband and her young sister, who was born in the United States. Piper, the advocate, said she's been touched by how deep a connection mother and daughter share after eight years of being physically apart.

"The only thing I'm asking for," Kelly Castaneda said through tears at the rally before her daughter's court hearing, "is for us to be together and be happy."

When Nicole arrived in the courtroom, Immigration Judge Mimi Tsankov, who handles the juvenile docket in Denver, instructed all of the children without attorneys to attend a know-your-rights session held by the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. Nicole and Kelly did so and then sat in the tiny courtroom, waiting their turn as child after child faced the judge. Most were teenagers -- thirteen, fifteen, seventeen years old -- who were appearing in court for the first time. Many were also accompanied by a family member, though not always by an adult. Through an interpreter, Tsankov patiently explained the charges against them and asked if they'd like some time to find an attorney and file for asylum in the U.S. Everyone said yes, and she scheduled most of them to reappear on November 13. (The Denver court hears juvenile cases once a month.)

A few of the children were younger. There was an eleven-year-old girl from El Salvador in a flower-print sundress and a messy, wind-blown ponytail who appeared with her father. And there was a young boy with spiky hair, who looked to be about eight. He was so small that when he sat in the chair facing the judge, his feet didn't touch the ground.

Continue for more about children at immigration court, including a video. When it was Nicole's turn, Kelly went with her. As the judge explained why the government is seeking to deport Nicole, Kelly began to cry. "Nicole was alone, living in Peru," Kelly said through the interpreter. "And our desire was to reunite as a family."

Judge Tsankov gently cut her off. Before you say anything else, she advised, you should try to find an attorney. "I'm happy to give her a continuance to November," Tsankov said. "Nothing is happening with the case today."

Tsankov suggested that Nicole and Kelly leave the courtroom for a bit to compose themselves. They did, and when they came back, they told the judge that Nicole intends to file for asylum. An attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network interjected and asked if Tsankov could schedule Nicole's next court appearance sooner rather than later; applications for asylum must be filed within one year of an immigrant's arrival in the United States -- and if Nicole waited until November 13, she'd miss that deadline. Tsankov agreed and scheduled Nicole to return on May 8.

Below, watch a video of Nicole and her supporters singing "Imagine."

Immigration rally in Denver from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

(Denver is not the only city with a juvenile immigration docket. Dallas has one too -- and for a time, the city's most controversial immigration judge was assigned to handle it. Read more in this excellent story by Joe Tone, formerly the web editor at Westword and now the editor of our sister paper, the Dallas Observer.)

More from our Immigration archive: "Jaime Leon Rivas, undocumented teen immigrant, released from detention."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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