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Court backlog of immigration cases puts some lives on hold

Suzanne Mendoza’s life has been on hold for two years.

That’s how long she has been waiting to find out whether her husband will be deported to the Philippines.

“I don’t know if I’m going to have a husband,” the 49-year-old said as she sifted through a stack of immigration paperwork. “What’s going to happen to me if he’s deported?”

Las Vegas Immigration Court has postponed hearing the case of Mendoza’s husband several times since he received notice his application for a green card was denied and he was placed in deportation proceedings.

“It’s almost better to go and get deported,” said her husband, a 47-year-old hotel porter who asked his name be withheld for fear of hurting his case. “At least it would be finished and I could stop thinking about it all the time.”

The couple’s story exemplifies what thousands of local immigrants and their families go through as they wait longer and longer for their day in court.

The number of unresolved local immigration cases again hit an all-time high in fiscal 2011. The backlog grew by about
37 percent over last year, the third-steepest increase in the nation, according to a December analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 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. It also leads to longer wait times for immigrants, some of whose lives remain in limbo while their cases are unresolved.

“They can’t travel. They postpone getting married,” said Rolando Velasquez, an immigration lawyer who is advocacy director for the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Their life plans are put on hold.”

For Mendoza’s husband, it means waiting even longer to visit family. He is afraid to travel for fear he won’t be able to return to the United States. Since he emigrated in 1996, his son has grown into a man, his mother into an old woman, both back in the Philippines.

The wait also is testing his marriage.

“We’re dealing with all this paperwork and legal fees while working full-time,” said Mendoza, who also works as a porter. “He’s not a number, he’s a human being. They need to get this straightened out.”

But the process is unlikely to speed up anytime soon. The local Immigration Court used to have three judges, but one who retired in 2009 has yet to be replaced. The two current judges are Ronald Mullins and Jeffrey Romig.

The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, EOIR, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, is under a hiring freeze. At the same time, the backlog of cases has more than doubled. As a rule, the EOIR bars its judges from speaking to the media.

“While budgetary constraints prohibit the EOIR from hiring more immigration judges, the agency is working hard to address its pending cases,” Elaine Komis, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email.

The agency “closely monitors caseload volume, types, trends and geographic concentration and adjusts resource allocation whenever possible,” she said.

The local court’s backlog reached 2,869 cases in 2011, compared with 2,080 in 2009. In 2008, there was a backlog of 1,028 cases.

Nationally, the backlog also reached an all-time high of nearly 300,000 cases in 2011, a 60 percent increase since 2008.

Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants nationwide in recent years. In fiscal 2011, nearly 400,000 people were deported — the largest number in ICE history. A little more than half of those deported had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.

“Their priority is law enforcement, but they forget people still have to go through the system,” Velasquez said.

In June, ICE director John Morton, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, issued a federal directive urging immigration officials to use discretion to keep low-priority cases from clogging up immigration courts.

Officials should consider setting aside deportations of minors, the elderly and other low-priority immigrants living illegally in the United States to more quickly deport convicted criminals and other high-priority cases, the directive said.

Those orders have yet to trickle down to Las Vegas, Velasquez said.

“The policy is still being applied unevenly throughout the country,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the directive would help Mendoza’s husband, whose case, like those of many immigrants, is complex and dates back many years.

Immigration officials denied his request to seek legal status, saying he wasn’t eligible though he is married to a U.S. citizen.

His case was complicated by the fact that officials initially refused to recognize his 1995 divorce from a woman in Philippines, meaning they didn’t consider him to be legally married to Mendoza. His original work visa, which allowed him to work on a cruise ship in U.S. waters, expired long ago.

Immigration officials have allowed him to legally work while his case is being resolved.

In another effort to cut the backlog of cases, Department of Homeland Security officials announced a pilot program that will have teams of Immigration Court prosecutors combing through pending cases in Baltimore and Denver to weed out and close those deemed low-priority. The six-week program began Dec. 4 and could spread to other courts.

Meanwhile, Mendoza’s husband and other local immigrants will go on waiting for their day in court. His hearing was rescheduled for June, a date he hopes is kept this time.

“I don’t want to go back. I want to fight,” he said. “All I can do is wait and pray.”

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@review journal.com.

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