Special Reports

ONLY ON ABC-7: Backlog of immigration cases will get worse, attorney says

Special Report: Clogged Courts

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agents nationwide are arresting more than 400 undocumented immigrants a day, an increase of nearly 38 percent over the same period in 2016, according to the agency's latest data.

As the number of immigrants facing deportation increases, so to does the backlog in immigration court.

The federal building in Downtown El Paso can be a dreaded sight for undocumented immigrants - it is where limbo begins.

The backlog of pending immigration court cases is at an all-time high, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

As of April 2017, nearly 600,000 cases were unresolved across the country - 6,000 of those cases in El Paso alone.

"We have the whole gamut. We have clients from all over the world. We've represented people in court from China, Egypt and Mexico," said Jose Moreno, an attorney for the United Neighborhood Organization, which offers pro-bono representation to many undocumented immigrants.

Moreno told ABC-7 his job has changed since President Trump's inauguration.

"We have seen less consideration for people who - absolutely no criminal history and may have family here - they are being placed in detention, and of course, in removal proceedings," Moreno said.

ICE Director Thomas Homan says in Trump's first 100 days in office, three out of four undocumented immigrants detained had a criminal record. The other 25 percent -11,000 of them, did not. That's more than two-and-a-half times than during the Obama Administration.

Immigration attorney Daniel Caudillo has noticed. 

"Our case load, obviously, has increased. The number of calls that we get has increased," Caudillo said.

The backlog varies, depending on whether an immigrant is detained.

There are currently 447 pending cases at the ICE facility in El Paso, where where immigrants with criminal backgrounds or asylum seekers are held. The average case takes six months to be finalized. Officials say the cases are prioritized, since the cost of detaining someone is paid for the taxpayer, an average of $30 per detainee.

The wait is much longer for immigrants who are not detained. In the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico and stretches as far east as Midland, there are more than 5,000 pending cases for non-detained individuals. The average wait is just short of three years.

ABC-7 spent two days in immigration court observing what goes on. In one day, the judge heard 45 cases. It was just a preliminary hearing for the immigrants and all are required to return.

The comes the merit hearing, where an individual pleads his or her case against deportation. The judge may ask for paperwork and evidence and the process may takes years.

There are eight immigration judges in the El Paso sector and the justice department has announced plans to hire 125 new immigration judges by 2019.

Moreno said the government attorneys have also gotten more staunch in their prosecution, which prolongs cases. "I think it's only going to increase. I don't want to be an alarmist. I don't want to exaggerate, but easily five-fold," he said.

Notes from Immigration Court (May 11):

  • Judge Robert S. Hough
  • 45 cases on the docket
  • From 8 a.m. - 11 p.m. he saw minors (Wasn't allowed in)
  • From 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. he saw adults (Non-detained)
  • Top 3 countries:
    - Mexico
    - El Salvador
    - Honduras
  • 80 percent of cases needed a translator (Spanish)
  • One man was from South Africa. Told judge he and his American girlfriend were getting married. This would provide a path to citizenship
  • 75 percent of individuals had representation.

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