San Francisco

San Francisco Leads Nation in US Immigration Court Calendar Delays

With a nationwide backlog of 617,000 cases, immigration courts find themselves in crisis facing record delays leaving families in legal limbo

A joint investigation by NBC owned and operated stations in conjunction with Telemundo stations around the country found a record backlog of immigration cases clogging an overloaded and over stressed system.

Court records show waits that last more than 1,000 days in some cases. And, those records show, some immigration cases in US Immigration Court in San Francisco now are being scheduled as far into the future as July 2022.  

The reason: there simply aren’t enough judges and staff to handle such an overwhelmed Immigration Court system.

“It is painful for the judges and it is painful for the community we serve,” says Judge Dana Leigh Marks, who spoke to us in her role as President of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “A lot of people tell us that they fear for their very life if they're sent back to their home country. That's a death penalty case.”

Juana’s case is one of those. Grateful to be alive, Juana is an undocumented immigrant seeking asylum in the United States.   After she said she was raped back home in Guatemala, her attackers threatened to kill her if she went to police. “I would cry a lot,” Juana told NBC Bay Area. “But once I came here, I would feel secure.”  Juana says she and her 8-month old baby, Graciela, are safer here in the US. But she had to leave two other daughters behind in Guatemala.

Because they remain at risk, the NBC and Telemundo team agreed not to use Juana’s last name, or to use the full names of any of the other seven undocumented immigrants who spoke with us about their delayed court cases.

“When I get my papers I will be happy,” says Juana.

But on the day Juana arrived in US Immigration Court in San Francisco earlier this year, her chance to be awarded legal asylum suddenly disappeared because the judge was sick and abruptly canceled her case. That means she won’t get her day in court until next year at the earliest, forcing her to leave her daughters behind in Guatemala, under constant threat for an even longer period of time.  “I think about them and cry for them,” she says.  

Basilio, 38, is also an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who is seeking political asylum with his wife Margarita and their family. Back in Central America he tells NBC he was beaten and threatened with his life, all because he supported a political opponent of his hometown’s mayor.

Even though Basilio, his wife and two of their two sons escaped to the US, the rest of their family remains behind in Guatemala faces the same threats.

“I hope no one will harm them and I pray the United States can help me,” he says.

For now, Basilio won’t get that help. He won’t be able to legally reunite with any of those children left behind until he and his family have their day in court. That court date is now scheduled for 2020.

“It’s certainly not justice,” says Gautam Jagannath, a lawyer with the Social Justice Collaborative. He and his law partner, Emily Abraham, founded the non-profit legal group in Oakland in 2012 just to represent undocumented immigrants such as Basilio, Juana and hundreds of others. The US Immigration Court system, they say, carries life and death consequences for their clients.  Yet, it functions with the same speed and lack of resources as traffic court.

“Most of our clients have left family members - usually young children abroad. And they have no way to be reunited until the case is resolved,” says Emily Abraham.

Abraham says the vast majority of the people the Social Justice Collaborative represents have strong asylum cases and want to be heard in a timely fashion. In fact Abraham and Jagannath says they rarely lose a case once they present evidence.

Abraham points out that the stress these Immigration Court delays impose on their clients intensifies further with the rising rhetoric of hate against immigrants across the country, forcing many of them to live in fear as they await their court hearings.  

“We’re seeing cases set back four years and more,” says Jagannath. “We have cases set up to 2022.”

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According to Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), 617, 527 cases remain backlogged in US Immigration Court throughout the nation as of July, 2017.  That’s more than double the number from 2009, even with more deportation orders issued under President Trump. 

The problem according to court experts and the data: right now there are just 334 immigration judges in 58 courts across the country.  That means each judge averages more than 1800 cases. Some judges have 5000 or more cases on their docket.

“The immigration judges have been the canaries in the coal mine saying that we were going to be overwhelmed that we needed more help for more than a decade,” says Judge Dana Leigh Marks. Judge Marks says she has more than 3000 cases on her calendar right now. She says understaffed courts continue to be a growing problem—one only Congress can fix. “It is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” she says.

Though Congress did recently approve money to hire 65 more judge teams, Marks says only by adding another 200 or so more judges would the backlog start to improve.  After watching the backlog grow under President Obama, Marks says it has only grown worse with President Trump’s order to move judges to the U.S.-Mexico border and to take away prosecutorial discretion to drop or settle cases.  

“What happens is the home courts are left behind (when judges are transferred to the border) and in that sense and those cases just become older and older,” says Marks.  

In San Francisco Immigration Court the wait is now one of the longest in the country—an average of 1,113 days.  No court is setting new cases as far into the future—to July, 2022.

“The older cases get more complicated because the evidence becomes stale,” says Judge Marks.  People may lose touch with witnesses. (Witnesses) that they need. And a lot of people tell us that they fear for their very life if they’re sent back to their home country.  

Judge Marks and others say that unless that system changes this backlog will continue to grow.  

In response to NBC’s questions about this backlog a spokesman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review which oversees the management of Immigration Courts around the country, said “E-O-I-R is committed to a multi-level strategy…including the hiring of more judges…” Spokesman Kenneth Gardner of the Western and Pacific Regional Public Information Office for EOIR also said “EOIR is undertaking a broad, agency-wide effort to review and reform its internal practices, procedures, and technology in order to enhance immigration judge productivity and ensure that cases are adjudicated in a fair and timely manner across all of the agency’s courts.”

Click here to read the full statement from EOIR.

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