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INFLUX: A group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas, on June 25.
Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay
INFLUX: A group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas, on June 25.

System overload

Immigration | A growing crisis of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border is just one part of an overwhelmed immigration system in need of repair

Issue: "Border gridlock," Aug. 9, 2014

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.

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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.

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