Last month the Star Tribune reported a story that illustrates the clogged and chaotic condition of U.S. immigration courts.
In 1997, Audencio Lopez, a teenager in Guatemala, illegally crossed the border into the U.S., fearing persecution by the government of Guatemala. He soon found a job at a landscaping company where he still works, maintaining school grounds. He applied for asylum seven years ago. The immigration court finally scheduled a hearing in his case this past November. He appeared in court with his wife and three children.
Lopez told the judge about his devout Christianity and Bible studies, his kids’ education at a charter school and dreams of going to college, and his fear of having to move his children to a dangerous place they’ve never been. He is hoping to stay in the U.S. under a law that applies to immigrants who have lived in the country more than a decade and have American children who would suffer if their parents were deported.
After about an hour of questioning, Judge Lincoln Jalelian told Lopez he would take the case under advisement. The government attorney said she doesn’t oppose granting Lopez a visa. However, Lopez is worried because his wife applied for asylum five years ago and has yet to have her immigration court hearing. “It’s a good first step,” Lopez said. He praised God, “but we hope he can show us another miracle.”
The immigration courts now have over one million pending cases like this. The Associated Press visited some of these courts in 11 different cities last fall. They found that hearings are double or triple booked at the same time, leading to numerous cancellations. Immigrants get new court dates, but not for years. Many immigrants don’t know how to fill out forms, get records translated, or present a case. Paper files are often misplaced. Interpreters or attorneys are not available when a case is called. Many immigrants can’t post bail and are held in detention for long periods.
In January 2017, when President Donald Trump took office, there were 542,411 pending immigration cases. At the end of August 2019, they had increased to 1,007,155 cases. In addition, there are 322,535 pending cases that have not been placed on the active caseload rolls yet. The average wait for a hearing is nearly two years. There are 64 immigration courts throughout the U.S., most of them clogged and chaotic.
According to immigration experts, these courts are irredeemably dysfunctional and on the brink of collapse. They say that the unprecedented number of cases and increased wait times for a hearing are negatively impacting the fairness of the system. People with valid persecution claims have to wait years to be granted asylum, and individuals with non-meritorious claims are allowed to remain in the country for lengthy periods of time while they wait for their court hearing.
In Fiscal Year 2019, the initial decisions of the immigration courts in I-862 cases were as follows: 181,139 applicants were deported; 26,592 voluntarily left; 30,479 won their cases; and 21,720 cases were terminated. So, the great majority of cases were decided against the asylum applicants when they finally got to a hearing.
The Supreme Court has held for more than a century that anyone in the U.S., even those illegally, are entitled to due process (a court hearing). President Trump’s Justice Department argued recently in a case in Washington, D.C., that immigrants have no constitutional rights.
According to the American Bar Association, the only way to resolve these problems is to transfer immigration cases to the regular court system. This would take immigration decisions out of the executive branch, where they are subject to political influence, and put them in the judicial branch, where they would be handled by federal court judges. Sounds to me like a good idea.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com or jamesmanahan.com.