Immigration court confirms years-long backlog of cases

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INDIANAPOLIS — Undocumented immigrants will likely have to wait even longer for a status hearing, in part, due to the pandemic.

As of May 22, there were 1.1 million people nationwide waiting to see an immigration judge. Thousands of those people live or have family in Indiana.

How long is the wait?

For those in detention centers and county jails, it is a three to six-month wait. Chicago’s immigration court is still hearing those cases amid the outbreak, but virtually.

Respondents that are not detained will wait at least five years to see a judge. Because of the pandemic, non-detained cases were put on hold. The backlog continues to grow daily. Judge Samuel Cole, with the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the Chicago court system will undoubtedly have to play catch up once it reopens. He said it will be at least mid-June before court rooms are open for service and once they do, he is not sure what the hearings will look like.

“You have lots of cases heard in one session by a court. There’s status hearings. There are a lot of people. It’s not unusual to have 100 people brought into a court for one particular judge,” he explained. “There are lots of people, lots of opportunities to interact and in terms of the public health issue, they present real challenges.”

Why is there such a long backlog?

Judge Samuel Cole said in Chicago, there are only 10 judges that preside over thousands of cases. They oversee Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

“The Executive Office of Immigration did not hire enough judges,” he told CBS4.

When asked what the solution is, Cole said it is “better management of the court system.” The National Association of Immigration Judges wants to be an independent entity, separate from the Department of Justice.

What do immigration attorneys have to say about the backlog?

Immigration attorneys say the name of the game is “managing uncertainty.”

Hannah Cartwright, who works for Mariposa Legal services, juggles several cases at a time. Right now, all of her clients are detained. Many are sitting in county jails but aren’t charged with a crime.

“That can be really shocking,” she said. “It can be very startling.”

Cartwright said the wait to see a judge is emotionally, mentally, financially and physically taxing on respondents and their families. Many, she said, are concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak as well.

“COVID-19 is spreading throughout immigration detention right now. It has showed up at multiple detention centers here in the Midwest.”

Cartwright claims there is a lack of medical care at those facilities as well. One of her clients reportedly took a coronavirus test but did not receive the results.

“This is the same facility where there is no soap and where there are no hand sanitizers. There are certainly no masks. PPE in detention either for the guards or individuals detained?” she said.

When asked how her clients were practicing social distancing, Cartwright said one was put in segregation.

“If you put someone in a room with no contact but also by themselves with nothing 24 hours a day, I suppose that is a form of social distancing but it’s not a legal or just form of social distancing by any means,” she said.

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