Immigrants wait on backlogged courts for citizenship

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Glenwood Springs immigration attorney Erin Richards has two clients who should be well on their way to becoming U.S. citizens. They have spouses and children who are citizens. They have clean records. They have steady jobs. And they have taken the necessary steps to go before an immigration court and petition to become citizens.

But their cases are on hold, meaning their lives are in limbo – for years. They can’t get their needed days in court because of a huge backlog of immigration cases. That backlog has been exacerbated by a federal policy that has pushed these types of cases to the bottom of the priority pile while cases of detained immigrants and those involving minors seeking legal status are moved to the top.

That means the Colorado immigrants who don’t fall into those categories have to continue to pay a fee every other year to have their quasi legal status extended. They can’t visit their home countries. They aren’t eligible for citizen benefits. They still live in fear of being removed from the United States.

It’s been really hard to tell our clients what the expectations are,” Richards said about the years-long wait time for court dates.

A glimmer of relief is now in sight for some of those immigrants in the 8,700 backlogged cases with wait times stretching into 2019 in the Denver Immigration Court.

The two Denver immigration judges who have been assigned to hear priority cases in other states via video for the past eight months, are being allowed by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to take up their dockets in Denver again. That will begin June 1.

But Judges Donn Livingston and Eileen Trujillo won’t be back on the Denver bench full-time for a while. They are also helping part-time Judge John W. Davis and Judge Mimi Tsankov to whittle the pile-up of cases at the Aurora Detention Center where wait times that are not supposed to exceed 60 days have stretched to six months.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks immigration court statistics, currently reports 256 cases pending at that facility with an average wait time of 113 days.

In the downtown Denver court, the clearinghouse lists the average wait time at 811 days compared to a national average for the 56 U.S. Immigration courts at 598 days.

We have one of the smaller courts here in Denver, and I think we feel this a little more acutely,” said Denver immigration attorney Jennifer Casey, who also serves as an immigration-court liaison to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The Denver court covers a four-state area (Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming) with only three full-time judges. It is designated to have seven judges, but there have been several retirements in recent years. The appointment of more judges has languished in budgetary and political problems.

The situation in the Denver court has grown more acute since October, 2014, when two judges were directed to set aside their normal dockets and to hear only video cases for unaccompanied minors and mothers-with-children detained in Artesia, N.M and later Dilley, Texas. That was part of a national Justice Department shuffle designed to move these priority cases more quickly through a system staggering under a national backlog of more than 440,000 cases.

The numbers of cases considered priority shot up during a surge of unaccompanied minors and mothers with children who began crossing the southern border in 2013 in response to increasing gang violence in Central America. The U.S. government retrofitted a law enforcement training center in remote Artesia that year to house hundreds of these immigrants. Last year, Artesia was closed when a new detention center was built near Dilley.

Now that Colorado’s immigration judges are no longer having to hear Dilley cases, some attorneys and immigrants had hope that the wait times would begin to shrink. That hasn’t happened yet. And it likely won’t happen soon.

New judges aren’t expected to be appointed in Denver until 2016. In the meantime, several judges from other immigration courts may be assigned to hear Denver court cases for short periods. If that help comes through, the Denver court will be able to once again start setting dates for hearings sooner than November, 2019.

Denver immigration attorney David Kolko wrote in a recent blog posting that immigrants who aren’t in detention shouldn’t expect their court dates to be moved up quickly.

We continue to be hopeful that we will see Immigration Reform in 2015 and that this reform includes funding for additional immigration judges nationwide,” Kolko wrote. “Until then, many foreign nationals will continue their frustrating wait for consideration of their applications for immigration benefits before our Immigration Courts.”

Richards said, for one of her clients in particular, the wait could mean he will never earn U.S. citizenship. If he has to wait more than three years, his children will be over the age of 18 and his case will be weakened by the fact that his children will no longer be minors. If they turn 21 before he has his day in court, he will not be eligible at all.

He will no longer be able to ask the court for citizenship,” Richards said. “He will have been denied his due process.”


Photo credit: David Sadler, Creative Commons, Flickr.

has been a journalist for more than 40 years, most of that on the Western Slope of Colorado. She worked for The Denver Post for 17 years and currently is freelancing and exploring book possibilities in “retirement.” She likes nothing better than telling the unique, and sometimes quirky, stories of the Western half of the state.