Court clogged by ICE backlog

The cases at Las Vegas Immigration Court are really piling up. In fact, the number of unresolved local immigration cases appears to be at an all-time high.

The backlog of cases at the court grew by more than 80 percent in 2010 -- the third-highest increase in the nation -- and is much higher than it has been any year for which figures are available, according to a recent analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, TRAC, a nonprofit group at Syracuse University that tracks federal law enforcement activities.

The backlog mirrors a national trend experts say is a consequence of stepped up immigration enforcement and a shortage of immigration judges.

One of the three local immigration judges retired last year, and the Justice Department has yet to replace her.

The backlog also leads to longer wait times for immigrants, some of whom put their lives on hold as their cases remain unresolved.

"People are stuck," said Peter Ashman, a local immigration attorney. "They can't travel. They can't get the documents they need because they are in deportation proceedings."

The court's backlog reached 2,080 cases this year, compared to 1,144 in 2009 and 1,028 in 2008.

It's the highest it has been in the 12 years TRAC has been tracking it. TRAC has been unable to validate backlog data before 1998, the agency said.

"They're now continuing master calendars until July," Ashman said. "A year or so ago it was two or three weeks."

Vicenta Montoya, a longtime local immigration attorney and activist, said the increased wait times remind her of when she first starting practicing in Nevada in 1985 "and Las Vegas didn't have an immigration court." The local court opened in 1995.

"You'd have to wait for judges to come from all over the country and schedule things five months down the road. Now, it's 11 months down the road."

Immigration courts nationwide are facing the same problem. The number of immigration cases awaiting resolution reached an all-time national high of 261,083 in fiscal year 2010, TRAC said. The federal government operates on a fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30.

The national backlog has grown 40 percent since 2008.

Immigrants who are incarcerated while awaiting appearances in immigration court could remain in jail longer because of the backlog. The North Las Vegas Detention Center has 150 beds for inmates from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which it rents to ICE for $105.96 per inmate per day. The beds are usually full, police said.

Those familiar with the workings of immigration courts blame the increases in large part on changes in enforcement strategies of the Department of Homeland Security. Officials have been deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants nationwide.

The Metropolitan Police Department in Las Vegas in late 2008 became one of more than 70 law enforcement agencies nationwide to have forged a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which falls under Homeland Security's umbrella.

The local partnership, dubbed "287(g)" after the corresponding section of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, allows specially trained officers at the Clark County Detention Center to identify immigration violators and place "immigration detainers" on them.

The detainers let local law enforcement hold deportable inmates after they otherwise would be released so immigration officials can take custody of them.

In July, ICE brought its Secure Communities program to jails in Clark County. The program entails checking the fingerprints of every individual arrested and booked into custody against both FBI criminal history records and immigration records.

If the fingerprints match someone who has had previous contact with ICE, the system automatically notifies the agency, which can decide whether to target the person for potential deportation based on previous criminal convictions.

Critics have said programs such as 287(g) and Secure Communities harm relationships between police and immigrant communities and make people afraid to report crimes.

In an effort to cut the severe backlog of cases, federal officials in some cities recently began dismissing more cases against immigrants who have not committed other crimes and have lived in the country for years. Critics have attacked the move as "backdoor amnesty."

Such dismissals have not increased in Las Vegas, however, according to figures from the federal Executive Office for Immigration Review. In the past year, an average of 33 local cases each month have been dismissed.

Attorneys and others who work with immigrants admit the growing backlog positively impacts many of their cases. People get to remain in the country while their cases remain unresolved.

"Some people are absolutely happy" to wait, said Malena Burnett, owner of Amigo Services Scribes, a local business that helps immigrants with citizenship applications and other legal issues. "Some people wish the court would take years. They keep hoping immigration reform will pass in the meantime."

Clients with children who are U.S. citizens benefit from delays because their children get older and develop more ties to the country, Montoya said. It's easier for a judge to deport a parent whose children are small and can adapt to a new country.

"It's much harder when you have a teen who may not know the language and has never been to the other country," she said.

Delays give people hope that "maybe laws will change in a way that benefits them," Ashman said. "Their situations might change. For some people, their best hope is time."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at