Immigration cases do not wake up from judicial lethargy in the United States | International

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Laura Gómez attributes to divine intervention that her family was not separated when they arrived in the United States. He surrendered himself, along with his four children, to the border patrol authorities of San Diego, California, in August 2018. That moment ended a journey that began months ago in one of the first caravans with which tens of thousands of Central Americans migrated. to the north. "They put me in a detainee van without my oldest daughter," she says. It was hot and the children were not wearing sweaters. One of the agents saw burn marks on the arm of one of the minors. It was the mark of the violence they had left in Honduras. “After that my daughter arrived at the vehicle. God doesn't do things by halves,” Gómez says over the phone.

Almost four years after that, the uncertainty does not end for the Gómez, who live in Beaverton, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. The family is still waiting for refugee status in the United States after suffering harassment from gangs in their country, who killed Laura's brother and burned his house, injuring his daughters. His case is one of 1.6 million stuck in a judicial system collapsed by the coronavirus pandemic. They have changed their lawyer three times and the hearings to analyze their petition have been postponed time and time again. “We were going to have one in December 2020, but they canceled it. Last year we had no date. And now it's time to go to court in May," explains Rosa, 25, the first-born.

There is little chance of that happening. Expert immigration lawyers have seen appointments disappear to argue their clients' cases in front of one of the specialized judges in the country. It is a process that, for the moment, has no end. Something worthy of Kafka.

A Haitian family rests at the border gap between the United States and Mexico. John Moore (Getty Images)

The waiting time for an asylum seeker is now 58 months, about five years, according to an analysis of the system by Syracuse University. The unresolved lawsuits went from 516,000 in 2016 to about 1.6 million, a figure never seen before (the law firm Berry, Appleman & Leiden estimates that there are eight million cases in the hands of the authorities of the Citizenship and Immigration Service, but not all are settled in court). The phenomenon is explained by several factors. The system has become overwhelmed after last year, which saw the highest number of illegal border crossings in history. The courts are also undergoing a readjustment after the hard years of the Trump Administration, which opted for magistrates who expel migrants. In addition, the Department of Justice suffers from a lack of staff. There are only just over 500 justices for fewer than 70 courts, according to the National Association of Immigration Judges. A Houston judge has 9,048 unresolved cases under his charge.

Syracuse experts began noticing the snowball last June. The Department of Homeland Security was flooding the courts with cases. The system recorded the highest number of litigation inflows to the system between October and December 2021. If this pace continues during the first quarter of fiscal year 2022, this will translate into 800,000 new cases. The Biden government estimated to receive 300,000 asylum applications last year and 125,000 refugees for the present (a figure that will change after the conflict between Russia and Ukraine).

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The lawyer Lizbeth Mateo has not had a single hearing since March 2020. Before the pandemic, the lawyer had between 12 and 15 active cases per year, which could be unburdened between six months and a year and a half, on average. Then the health crisis broke out. "Now they give us a hearing date and the day before they change it and move it a year," explains Mateo, originally from Oaxaca (Mexico), also undocumented, and who stars in an HBO documentary focused on his work in favor of the without papers like her.

Mateo prepares dozens of trials at the same time, all without conclusion. One of them, he assures him, was recently rescheduled for January 2023. It is the third time that he has rehearsed the court hearing. Three times he has reviewed with his client, an asylum seeker, the hard story to touch the hearts of the judges in charge of his future in the United States and where the defendant must once again expose his past crudely before to bury it once and for all. It has been of no use so far. “My clients are fed up. We must practice a lot what is said. That revictimizes them and I don't like to stir up their traumas,” says Mateo, 37. His clients complain about the lack of certainty. Every time they request information, the Department of Justice promises to respond within 72 hours, but "up to 30 days pass for the return call," according to the lawyer.

Central American families surrender to border patrol elements seeking humanitarian asylum in La Joya, Texas.
Central American families surrender to border patrol elements seeking humanitarian asylum in La Joya, Texas.Hector Guerrero

The crisis places great pressure on professionals like Mateo, who belong to small firms with only a handful of lawyers to handle various lawsuits, some of them pro bono. "I no longer take new cases," confesses the lawyer. "I can't provide them with the service they need." Lizbeth fears that when the system breaks down, if it ever does, several of her hearings will overlap within days or weeks.

This affects due process, an alarm that specialized judges have raised since May. “The processes commonly involve a large volume of citizens not legally represented. Those who appear in court are not fluent in our language, culture or laws, but are required to present their case without assistance, while the government is represented by highly skilled lawyers. A study by the group states that it is 10 times more likely that an immigrant accompanied by a defender will have a successful resolution of his case than one without a lawyer.

This is not just a bureaucratic nightmare. The process becomes a black cloud for the thousands of people who live in the shadows waiting for papers. The procedures mean work and residence permits. Laura Gómez, 40, received her social security number and a temporary work permit in September. She this week she started working in a restaurant. They still await asylum from her permanently and without knowing if that day will come.

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