Minn. immigration judges hit wall of cases

Published 10:10 am Monday, February 27, 2017

By Mila Koumpilova

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Immigration Judge Susan Castro faced a string of men in orange jail uniforms and shackled hands in her Fort Snelling courtroom on a recent Thursday. The morning was reserved for appearances by immigrants in detention, and Castro listed their options, from filing an asylum application to volunteering to fly back to their home countries.

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Her soft-spoken manner and the calming background music belied the court’s frenzied workload as she waited for an interpreter to come on the phone line.

In response to new directives from Washington, Castro and a fellow immigration judge in Bloomington are gearing up to focus on the cases of detained immigrants — likely lengthening wait times for others petitioning the court. There’s already a backlog of more than 5,100 cases covering Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and western Wisconsin.

“I will have more people calling me who need help to get out of jail,” said Twin Cities immigration attorney Graham Ojala-Barbour. Once clients are released on bail, he predicts, “they will have a pending case for years.”

Supporters of the administration’s harder line on enforcement say record immigration court backlogs indeed pose a hurdle. But they note that the administration plans to bypass court hearings for more recent or repeat border crossers and for more immigrants with criminal convictions. Those plans have alarmed immigrant advocates.

Half a million cases

Chronic court backlogs worsened in the early years of the Obama administration, when it deported a record number of immigrants before removals dropped off sharply. More recently, the Obama administration decided to prioritize the cases of unaccompanied minors from Central America and families with children whose arrivals at the border surged rapidly amid unrest and gang violence in their home countries.

As a result, thousands of other cases, such as those of other asylum seekers, got pushed back, in some cases landing a “parking date” in late 2019. Nationally, the backlog exceeded 542,000 cases for the first time last year, according to data from Syracuse University.

In a late January memo, the nation’s chief immigration judge announced those Central American cases will no longer take precedence, except for children who are not released to relatives or other sponsors here in the United States and remain in the government’s custody. Cases of immigrants in detention will remain the top priority. Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees immigration courts, said the shift reflects “the present state of the immigration system and EOIR’s efforts to adapt as the immigration landscape changes.”

Complicating matters for Minnesota’s immigration court, one of its three judges retired last spring, and his position remains vacant. Castro filled in for her colleague Kristin Olmanson during her time off last week, and visiting judges are slated to pitch in this week and next.

Court officials have alerted local attorneys that both judges will be assigned to handle detainee cases later this year for the court.