CHARLOTTE, N.C.—On a recent Wednesday afternoon, as politicians on Capitol Hill wrangled over the surge of nearly 52,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border, government attorney Scott Criss maneuvered a metal cart past a line of adult immigrants in an overcrowded waiting room at the Charlotte Immigration Court.
It was nearly 1:00 p.m., and the afternoon session was set to begin.
Stacks of bulging, brown folders filled Criss’s metal cart and held details about the lives of many waiting in the fluorescent-lit room—the Mexican man in the tan cowboy boots and maroon shirt, the young mother feeding a baby in her lap and guarding a toddler with her foot, and the nervous couple holding hands and gazing at the floor.
Most of the immigrants set for hearings that afternoon had already admitted they entered the U.S. without permission. The courts declare them “removable,” and a judge decides whether their cases may continue while they apply for relief to stay in the United States. Most will gain more time.
A lone judge faces a packed docket: Judge V. Stuart Couch will hear nearly 30 cases in less than three hours. That’s an average of six minutes per case.
For immigration judges across the United States, it’s not an unusual number. Federal immigration courts face a staggering backlog of more than 375,000 pending cases. Over the last fiscal year, the number of cases rose by 23,000.
It’s a massive load for a small set of judges: The nation has just 59 immigration courts and 246 judges. Immigration judges manage an average of 1,500 cases, compared to about 440 cases for other federal judges. The average time to complete a case is 573 days. Some cases stay in the system for years.
Still, the caseload represents a fraction of the estimated 12 million immigrants residing in the United States illegally, and it raises questions about whether the U.S. system is prepared to withstand sweeping reform of any kind without strengthening its infrastructure.
In 2010, Frank Deffer, the assistant inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Congress the agency wasn’t ready for a massive influx of new applications related to immigration. Deffer said DHS was working to transfer its paper files into an electronic system, and that it would take “a few years.” (The project began in 2005.) “Adding 12 million more people to the system would be the mother of all backlogs,” Deffer testified. “Clearly to us the systems could not handle it now.”
Four years later, that reality has intensified with the surge of 52,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America showing up at the U.S. border. Many say a mixture of violence at home and rumors of amnesty have driven the influx. As government officials debate the next steps, some evangelicals are looking for ways to provide humanitarian aid to children arriving alone, while others are trying to prevent the flow at the source.
As the debate over immigration reform continues, both sides press specific agendas without focusing on the reality of what’s happening in overburdened immigration courts and other agencies across the United States each day. Even if the U.S. Border Patrol fully secures the southern border, the country still faces hurdles in the heartland.
WHILE CHARLOTTE, N.C., may not be the heartland, it’s far removed from the publicity of the southern border. Still, as many as 400,000 illegal immigrants live in North Carolina, drawn to the region by agricultural and construction jobs.
The Charlotte Immigration Court opened in 2008 after lawmakers and advocates noted the closest immigration court was more than four hours away. The Department of Justice appoints judges and oversees the country’s 59 immigration courts, including those located in detention centers.
Today, the North Carolina court has three judges and more than 3,300 pending cases. (California has eight immigration court locations and the highest number of pending cases in the nation: more than 77,000.)
If Charlotte’s immigration court is busy, it’s not flashy. Three small courtrooms sit tucked in a nondescript office building miles from downtown, and next to a Methodist church advertising free ESL classes on Friday mornings.
Inside, judges work through packed dockets of closed hearings for cases that need more attention, and a daily “master calendar” of cases that are open to the public. The public hearings usually involve processing new cases and assessing whether open cases need more time to process paperwork. Often, judges simply schedule another hearing date.
Some immigrants wind up in immigration court after police officers discover their illegal status during minor offenses like traffic stops. Some offenses are more serious: On the day I visited, a handful included drug charges, DUIs, and accusations of child abuse.
In most cases, the immigrants were in the process of filing for various forms of relief to stay in the United States. Some filed for asylum, others were married to U.S. citizens, and some were hoping for work permits.
Others were waiting to hear about requests for prosecutorial discretion—a new initiative that allows DHS to delay indefinitely certain cases to focus on those involving the most dangerous offenders.
A document on the U.S. Customs website lists at least nine different forms immigrants could complete to file for relief from deportation. For an uninitiated court observer, some exchanges between attorneys and judges sound like a complicated blur of numbers and codes: “This respondent is eligible for the I-485, but there was a problem with the 42B.”
But beyond the case numbers and legal shorthand, stories emerged: One woman sought relief because of an abusive husband. Another man was married to a U.S. citizen and has a child with special needs. A 27-year-old woman was a single mother of five children born in the United States. In at least two cases, the judge granted young people who had grown up in the United States deferred action status that allows them to stay in the country.
Other cases were less sympathetic: The day began with a 17-year-old Honduran youth failing to appear for his court date. Judge Theresa Holmes-Simmons asked the attorney his client’s whereabouts. The attorney reported his client said he wasn’t coming to court, but didn’t give a reason. He asked for a continuance.
“I would object to that,” interjected a government attorney. “I would too,” the judge replied. After outlining the seriousness of missing a court date after entering the country illegally, the judge issued an order for the young man to leave the United States.
It’s unclear whether that will happen. Immigration judges may issue removal orders, but it’s up to another agency—the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—to initiate the actual deportation. Depending on ICE backlog, that process can take months, and some immigrants could evade deportation.
The court process can take a toll on some judges, especially when they make high-stakes decisions about asylum cases or other special circumstances in a short period of time. One judge testified to Congress that it was like doing “death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”
Other judges grow weary of cases that continue indefinitely. Packed schedules mean judges must sometimes set an immigrant’s next court hearing for many months later. Joe Dierkes recently retired after 11 years as an immigration judge in Minnesota, and told the Star Tribune newspaper he left over stress and burnout: “The beauty of any judicial system is when you get finality. It’s discouraging when you have to set cases out so far. It wore me out, basically.”
As many as 100 judges are eligible for retirement this year, though it’s unclear how many will leave their posts. Meanwhile, more judges aren’t the only need. A massive computer crash earlier this year crippled the court’s system for more than a month. Attorneys said the problems slowed proceedings even more, and showed the need for updated technology.
Though more judges and resources won’t solve all the problems in the complex immigration system, Dana Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco, told the Houston Chronicle the courts do need more judges to handle the caseload, particularly if immigration enforcement increases: “It should be the happy compromise that immigration liberals and conservatives agree upon.”
So far, liberals and conservatives haven’t agreed on many compromises when it comes to immigration. The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last year that would have added 225 more immigration judges, but House Republicans objected to other parts of the massive legislation and urged smaller bills to address specific problems in a more focused way.
Securing the border remains at the top of that list, with some 21,000 agents currently patrolling the border region. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairs the House Judiciary Committee that handles measures related to immigration and enforcement, and has led calls for increased enforcement at the border since the surge of unaccompanied minors.
When I asked Goodlatte about deeper problems in the broader immigration system—including backlogged courts across the country—the congressman responded with a statement saying the years-long wait in some courts was “unacceptable and must change.” But his statement remained focused on the current crisis at the border, and didn’t mention specific proposals for assisting (or reforming) immigration courts.
NEAR THE BORDER TOWN of Laredo, Texas, another congressman was talking about both the current crisis and the long-standing problems in the immigration system.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat in a border district, told CNN: “There is an incentive that if you bring your child over here, or if you’re a child by yourself, you’re going to be let go. And that’s exactly what’s happening. … Our immigration courts are so backlogged. There’s not enough detention spaces. … This is the incentive we have to take away.”
Though the Obama administration initially blamed the influx of thousands of unaccompanied minors on dangerous conditions in their Central American countries, it seems clear that many also heard if they reached the United States they would be allowed to stay.
In many cases, that’s true. A 2008 anti-trafficking law signed by President George W. Bush—and supported by Democrats, Republicans, and some prominent evangelicals at the time—included special protections for unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America.
Unlike minors from Mexico, the law prohibits border patrol from simply turning back Central American children at the border, and offers an opportunity for the minors to present their cases in court. But with backlogged courts, many of the minors may not see a court date for at least a year.
President Barack Obama, along with some Republicans, has called for a change in the law to allow quicker deportations. Some say the law already allows for DHS to speed up deportations under special circumstances.
Either way, it’s clear that some of the children are arriving from viciously dangerous countries. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and violence instigated by El Salvadoran gangs has soared. Much of that violence targets youth, and some parents are desperate to spare their children.
Most of the minors arriving at the border are teenagers, but authorities say children as young as 4 years old have arrived at the border with instructions pinned to their clothes, telling officials where to find relatives in the United States.
Unaccompanied minors have been traveling to the United States for decades, and most end up connecting with a parent or other family member already living in the country. Once a child enters illegally, DHS has 72 hours to transfer him to the custody of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
ORR contracts with nonprofits and other groups to provide group shelters to children over 13 and foster homes to those 13 and younger. ORR officials usually identify a parent or family member already living in the United States and release the children to their custody while awaiting a hearing.
Though the Obama administration has called the current crisis an emergency, officials at the border say they’ve been reporting a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors for over a year. In January, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops estimated 60,000 unaccompanied children could enter the country in 2014 (up from 25,000 in the last year). By July, the Obama administration acknowledged that figure could hit 90,000 by the end of September.
Caring for tens of thousands of children is a daunting task, and while some towns have turned away busloads of minors, many churches have offered help. In late May, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked Southern Baptists to help in Brownsville, Texas. The Southern Baptists of Texas reported that relief volunteers worked in child care, provided shower and laundry services, prepared over 21,000 meals, and served 1,336 children in two-and a-half weeks.
Mike Ebert of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) said federal officials haven’t asked for more help from SBC Disaster Relief while they formulate plans. He says the SBC disaster group is ready to help if needed, but says local churches may be better equipped to address longer-term needs.
Bethany Christian Services already has been assisting unaccompanied minors for years, and released a statement saying the U.S. government has asked the group for assistance with the current crisis. A spokesman for Bethany referred questions to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), but the agency denied interview requests.
In 2012, Bethany opened Bridgeway, a transitional/residential shelter for unaccompanied minors over the age of 14. A 2013 press release said Bethany had cared for 24 children in the facility, and that most stayed at Bridgeway for six weeks before reuniting with family members. Younger children went to foster homes.
The statement said Bethany was the largest unaccompanied refugee minor resettlement agency in the nation at the time. (The press release also said ORR was expecting a 44 percent increase in 2013—another indication federal agencies knew the problem was growing.)
Gabriel Salguero of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition said ORR had contracted with his group to provide shelter and foster care to hundreds of unaccompanied minors. Salguero said the group would work with 15 partner sites around the country, including local churches, to provide temporary group shelters or foster care to more than 600 children. He expected the group to start receiving children in early or mid-August.
Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference (NHLC) said his group was encouraging local churches to reach out to new immigrant populations in their communities. But he’s also reaching out to Christians in Central America—a region where evangelicalism has grown dramatically in recent years.
NHLC representatives have traveled to Central American countries and met with prominent evangelical pastors over the last few weeks. Rodriguez says pastors have agreed to convey a message to their congregations: “Don’t send your children to the U.S. border.”
Rodriguez says the group is trying to help parents understand the dangers of sending children on a long journey with corrupt smugglers: “They’re feeding a narco-trafficking, coyote-facilitated system that harms and exploits children.” (The NHLC also plans to run ads in print and radio in Central American outlets.)
Rodriguez says he believes the best place for the children coming to the border is with their families in their home countries. He understands the violence facing many in Central American countries, but says the journey to the United States could be even more dangerous, and he encourages families to pursue legal pathways to immigration.
He says he’s asking pastors to tell their congregations: “If you really want to protect your children, keep them at home. Keep the family unit committed to Christ. The same Lord that is our shepherd in California is the same Lord that is your shepherd in El Salvador.”