Crisis in the Courts: Immigration Backlog Puts Families in Limbo

Getting your day in court is getting more difficult for those who have pending immigration cases. A months long NBC/Telemundo Investigation shows immigration hearings are being delayed for years as the backlog in the courts grows to record lengths.

We’re talking about immigrants who are waiting for asylum hearings among other cases. You would think, being allowed to live here for years while waiting for their day in court would be a good thing, but these delays could make their cases fall apart and put their families back home in life or death situations.

Breaking their silence is not easy for seven undocumented immigrants from Guatemala who spoke to NBC. They speak a Mayan Language called MAM and are terrified of being deported.

"I worry about my daughters, I cry for them," said Juana, who left two daughters behind in Guatemala when she fled to the US with her baby after she says she was raped and her life was threatened.

Basilio, another one of the Guatemalan immigrants, said he left his hometown with his family after being beaten.

All of them are now waiting for their day in court – when they can share their stories with an immigration judge as they seek asylum in this country. That day is going to take years.

According to Syracuse University’s transactional records access clearinghouse or TRAC, more than 617,000 immigration cases are now backlogged. That number has more than doubled since 2009 and the 334 immigration judges across the country just can’t handle the caseload.

"There have been initiatives both under the Obama administration and under the Trump administration that have resulted in us as judges being required to shuffle our docket," explained Judge Dana Leigh Marks, who spoke to us as the president of the National Association of Immigration Judge.

Marks said the latest docket shuffling came when the Trump Administration prioritized border cases. Judges from all over the country had to begin postponing their own cases as they were temporarily reassigned to border facilities.

"What happens is the home courts are left behind and those cases just become older and older," said Marks.

Miami immigration attorney Sandy Pinera says having her cases pushed back really hurts her clients.

"There’s a judge that has moved my case five times already," she said.

Department of Justice records obtained by NBC show at least 13 Miami judges have been temporarily reassigned to detention centers in New Mexico, Louisiana, Texas and Chicago in the last year.

From September 30th, 2016 through July 31st, 2017, the immigration backlog in Miami grew from 24,370 to 31,219 cases. Half of the cases that were rescheduled during that period were because a judge was reassigned.

"It’s as if they have forgotten us," said Andres, one of the Guatemalan immigrants waiting for his hearing in San Francisco where the average wait-time is three years.

In Miami, the wait is about a year and a half and it’s much worse in cities like San Antonio, Atlanta and Chicago. Basilio’s hearing is set for the year 2020.

Judge Marks said she knows there are people whose cases are harmed by waiting on the docket so long.

"People may lose touch...with witnesses that they need. They may have qualifying relatives who become ill and pass away," said Marks.

Retired Arlington Immigration Judge Paul Schmidt said there are simply not enough judges to clear the backlog.

"It’s a disaster, I think it’s moving towards implosion,” said Schmidt.

Congress recently approved money to hire 65 more judge teams but Marks said at least 200 more are needed to start improving the backlog. She also believes immigration judges would be more effective if they didn’t have to constantly adapt to changing administrations who have different priorities.

"We should be taken out of the Department of Justice and made a neutral court system," said Marks.

Though sending judges to the border was a move to alleviate the backlog, Senate Appropriations Staff acknowledged in March that this would likely increase the case backlog.

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