Overworked and underfunded immigration court system can’t do the job

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Almost half a million immigration cases wait to be heard in immigration courts. The number of pending cases has doubled in six years and keeps growing. Overburdened judges handle about 1,400 cases each year, far more than any other administrative judges. In each case a person, a family, a mother or father or sister or brother, waits for a day in court. 

One week of immigration news: because it’s important. And because it’s important, during this Give to the Max week, please consider donations to the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and the Advocates for Human Rights, two organizations doing good and important work. Monday: Immigrant hunger strikes; Tuesday: Dogs before children; Wednesday: Deportation numbers and the latest ruling on the president’s plan ; Thursday: Broken immigration courts; Friday: Changing face of immigration, nationally and in Minnesota.

A report from Syracuse University describes the length of the wait for a hearing.

“[T]he average wait time for an individual in the Immigration Court’s pending cases list has also reached an all-time high of 635 calendar days. But this average wait time only measures how long these individuals have already been waiting, not how much longer they will have to wait before their cases are resolved.

“The severity of the rapidly growing crisis was revealed last January, when the court issued thousands of letters notifying individuals that their cases would be delayed for nearly five years more — until November 29, 2019.”

In Minnesota, the report said, the average wait time was 638 days, with 1,092 more days until the probable hearing date.

A Los Angeles Times op/ed identified the problem: too few judges. Everybody who knows anything about the system knows more judges are needed. But Congress refuses to budget for them.

“There is a solution: Money. Estimates range from needing 100 to 225 additional judges to clear the current cases and keep up with the anticipated future caseload. So how does that happen? Congress budgets for it. Except it refuses to.

“This is where Congress’ cynical approach to immigration enters the spotlight. The Republicans in Congress bray about Obama’s immigration policies and decry the high numbers of folks here in the country without permission. But they refuse to look at the solution that they control: properly budgeting the court system that determines who has a legally recognized right to stay, and who is eligible for deportation.”

Judges are not the only people needed to make the immigration courts work.More than 85 percent of immigration cases need interpreters, but the Department of Justice is trying to slash the pay for interpreters, and that will mean more trouble for the already over-burdened courts.

Tony Rosado is a professional interpreter. He says he does not work in immigration courts because even the old rates were unconscionably low. But now, Rosado reports in his blog:

“For several weeks I have been contacted by many of our interpreter friends and colleagues. They have talked to me in person, over the phone, by text, by email, and through social media. The message was the same: interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States are under siege.  They explained how the contractor who will provide interpreting services at all U.S. immigration courthouses had contacted them to offer unprecedented low fees and horrifying working conditions to those who wanted to continue to interpret in these settings.”

BuzzFeed sums up the problem: without enough interpreters, immigration courts can’t function and immigrants can’t get a fair hearing. The extensive BuzzFeed article offers an example of the crucial role played by interpreters:

“Lichter recalled a time when a woman was testifying about the six men who gang raped her. The woman recounted how one of the men standing behind her said, ‘Vamos a hacerla picadillo,’ which translates roughly to ‘Let’s beat her to a pulp.’ The interpreter got it wrong, Lichter said, by rendering a literal translation of the Spanish word picadillo as ‘ground beef.’

“The difference may seem subtle, Lichter said, but it can be crucial in determining whether, from the judge’s perspective, an asylum seeker’s story appears to come truly from the heart or falls flat because it doesn’t make sense.”

Lawyers also play an essential role, representing people in hugely complex immigration proceedings. Every day, immigration judges decide cases that are literally a matter of life and death. Many of the cases now pending in immigration courts involve children who have fled violence in Honduras and El Salvador over the past several years.

According to PBS NewsHour, 19,000 immigrants under 21 have filed requests to stay in the United States this year, and 62 percent are not represented by lawyers. Immigration cases, especially refugee cases, are incredibly complex. The ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit saying that these children need to be represented by lawyers as they seek asylum here. PBS reports:

“Seventy-three percent of immigrants under 21 with lawyers are allowed to stay in the U.S. That’s five times higher than the 15 percent of children without lawyers who are allowed to stay.”

When someone is represented by a lawyer, their case gets more careful consideration. That takes longer, increasing the average length of immigration court cases from 16 months for people who are not represented by lawyers to 30 months for those who are.

Judges, lawyers, interpreters — they are all essential to immigration courts. Without adequate funding, the entire system fails.

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