By GRETA KAUL
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) — A person accused of a crime in the United States has a constitutional right to a speedy trial. But if you find yourself waiting for a hearing at the nondescript office building that serves as the federal immigration court in Bloomington, justice may not be swift.
Today, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based organization that tracks federal government data, a person facing deportation in the Bloomington court who is not detained can expect to wait 1,060 days, or almost three years, before the case will be heard — part of a massive and growing backlog of cases that’s delaying resolutions for thousands of immigrants and refugees around the country.
There are several reasons people find themselves in Bloomington’s immigration court. They might be arrested for a crime and found to be undocumented or hold refugee or green card status; they might have crossed the border seeking asylum and have a status hearing; or their green card, DACA or citizenship application might have been flagged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
When people face deportation, they typically attend one or more quick hearings to receive notice of why they’re in removal hearings. They enter a plea and file any applications or defenses to the court. Then comes an individual hearing, where a person can present testimony and witnesses for the judge to review and use to decide the case.
Getting these hearings is taking a long time though, thanks to a growing number of pending cases in the immigration system: As of June, there were 7,672 cases currently pending in the immigration court in Bloomington, more than double the 3,546 cases pending in 2015. At the federal level, there are more than 733,000 pending cases, up from 456,000 in 2015, according to TRAC.
In fact, Bloomington’s wait times are far from the worst among such facilities. At 1,060 days, the wait for nondetained people seeking a hearing falls near the middle of the country’s 58 immigration courts. In Houston, home to the country’s most backlogged immigration court, expected waits are nearly five years.
The number of cases pending in federal immigration courts has been on a general upward trajectory since 2008, but recently, the bottleneck is growing faster than before.
In the time since President Donald Trump took office, the number of pending cases has increased by a third, according to TRAC. The burgeoning caseload isn’t a result of more new filings to deport people, however, but rather the product of the process taking longer to complete amid busy dockets — despite rule changes under Attorney General Jeff Sessions that are supposedly designed to expedite the process.
One of the biggest reasons for wait times in Bloomington is a lack of judges, immigrant advocates say.
The court in Bloomington has two judges who primarily process cases for people who are being held in detention (which are typically expedited) and two judges to handle cases for those who are not being kept in detention, said Anne Carlson, a staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Immigration Law Project.
“The court has been understaffed basically since its inception in Minnesota,” she said.
The Bloomington court is planning to add another judge this year, she said, but that may not be enough to significantly reduce the backlog. Despite the addition of judges nationally, the number of pending cases in the system grew faster in the beginning of 2018 than 2017.
“If the government wants this process to be faster, then they really have to double, triple, quadruple the number of judges,” Carlson said.
Another reason Minnesota might have long wait times is that the cases are often complicated in nature.
“We have a very diverse immigrant and refugee community in Minnesota . our deportation dockets probably have more international human rights kinds of cases, because if you’re coming from a refugee-producing country, odds are it’s still a dangerous place for you to go back to,” Keller said.
As such, in Minnesota, many people awaiting deportation hearings have been here a long time.
“The people who are here have generally been here longer, have more ties (to the community) and have probably more complicated defenses that they can raise than somebody who was picked up a week ago at the Texas border,” Carlson said.
The backlog creates all kinds of side effects. For example, a person fleeing a life-threatening situation in their home country who has to wait three to four years to have their case heard in the U.S. might have trouble maintaining evidence for their case.
“A difficulty can be evidence — making sure (it’s) available to you at the time,” said Robyn Meyer-Thompson, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Law Center. “Testimony, that can change over time.”
For attorneys, that means cases can take more time, which reduces the number of cases they can handle. Since deportation is a civil proceeding, not a criminal one, those facing it are not guaranteed a lawyer; when cases take longer, the resources of legal groups that work on immigration cases are spread more thinly.
Immigration policy can also change while people are waiting for a hearing. Kim Hunter, a St. Paul immigration lawyer, has a client who fled her home country due to domestic violence. Her case, which began in 2011, was delayed and finally showed up on the docket this month.
If her case had been heard right away, Hunter said, it would have been fairly straightforward: Under the Obama administration, domestic violence could be grounds for asylum. Sessions recently rescinded that rule, and victims of domestic violence must now prove that their government is “unwilling or unable” to offer protection.
And then there’s the human toll. When cases are caught up in immigration court for years without a decision, long-term planning — whatever the outcome — becomes difficult.
“If you want to go to school, if you want to buy a home, if you’re in a job, all of those things if you’re kind of living month to month or year to year, we know make it harder for you to reach your maximum potential,” Keller said.