On July 31, 2018, Chicago Immigration Court Judge Elizabeth Lang had 85 cases on desk. The frail Iraqi woman standing in front of her was waiting to for her final immigration hearing-a day she’d been looking forward to for four years. The judge sadly had to tell her that her case number was not one on the docket that day.

“My docket is full right now,” the Chicago Immigration Court judge said apologetically before scheduling the next hearing.

Without an Arabic translator, the woman didn’t comprehend the news she and her 80-year-old husband were receiving. Her husband could not attend the court appearance because he was in receiving treatment for a brain tumor.

Sadly, this is a normal day for judges like Lang.

Chicago attorney Alexander Michael explained the long delay which has become the norm in many cities like Chicago and other immigration courts. “You never know what’s going to happen four years from now,” he said.

The immigration system has two tracks-one fast and one slow. This backlog is something that is dealt with daily by immigrants and the courts. Most of those effected by this process are Latinos; targets of the Trump administration. Many start their days in the court rooms before going to their blue-collar jobs waiting and hoping their case is moved up the backlog that day.

The slow track is for everyone else who has been waiting for their turn, sometimes for years. The backlog in Chicago’s immigration court has nearly doubled since 2015.

That day in court is vital for the survival of many immigrants- it can meant staying in the U.S. or being forced to return to war-torn poverty stricken countries.

This so-called “rocket docket” for recent arrivals was set up by federal officials last November in Chicago and nine other locations. Since the implementation many cases have a final hearing within six months or less. In comparison, it took 799 days on average for a case to come to court in Chicago as of last month, according to figures from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The national number of backlog cases has grown exponentially during the Trump administration. There are currently over one million cases in the backlog as of August 2019, a 93% increase. This figure does not include the 300,000 low-priority cases that the Trump administration plans to add. Most of these cases  have been in the backlog since the Obama administration.

In April 2019, Chicago’s immigration court had 4,054 cases in their backlog. The average number is 2,954 for the 25 largest courts with Dallas holding the record that month with 6,900 cases.

“Rocket Dockets” have faced criticism by attorneys who claim that the policy denies justice, limits the gathering of evidence and witnesses, and gain other information such as past traumas of their home countries.

Chicago attorney Victor Aparicio recalled one of his cases where a teenage girl from Central America attempted suicide after refusing to testify in court and recall the horrors of her birth country. The family was granted a five-month extension.

Delays in the backlog are especially troublesome for immigrants who do not speak English as interpreters are not always available. The same goes for pro bono lawyers who fear taking immigration cases based on the time frame.

Prior to the “Rocket Docket” Chicago immigrants requesting free legal help was already taking a toll on lawyers.

“When we have capacity, we strive to take cases, [but] we take one out of 50. We see so many people,” Hena Mansori, managing attorney of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center’s Adult Detention Project, said earlier this year.

“We’d actually argue there aren’t enough affordable [not necessarily pro bono] attorneys able to represent individuals, who often are very low-income and will have cases that may last for multiple years,” said Tara Tidwell Cullen, spokesperson for the National Immigrant Justice Center.

The government says the policy was put in place for efficiency, many see if much differently.

“It is like retribution. They [the government] are going so fast that they [the immigrants] cannot get a lawyer and they will lose their cases,” said Jeffrey Chase, a former Immigration Court judge in New York City and senior legal immigration advisor for the Bureau of Immigration Appeals. “At the same time that they [the government] are speeding them up, they are changing the laws, so you need more time,” he added.

Out of the 18,902 “Rocket Docket” from September 2018 to August 2, 2019 cases, only 172 were won by immigrants.

The “Reshuffling of dockets” has led to postponing cases in courts across the U.S. Replying to the criticism, the Executive Office for Immigration Review issued a statement saying that its efforts to “strengthen and improve the functioning” of the courts are “showing results.” It pointed to the greater number of cases completed in fiscal 2019 as compared to fiscal years 2012 through 2017.

“EOIR remains committed to ensuring that all who come before its courts will receive due process and a timely, fair adjudication, the outcome of which is based on the law,” the statement read. But the agency was not able to immediately provide information about the hearing times for the “Rocket docket” and other cases in Chicago.

On top of dealing with the flood of cases, another problem has come up, compounding what some describe as the chaos of an overloaded court system.

It involves the notices that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sends out to immigrants to tell them they have a court date.

The problem, attorneys said, is that Notices to Appear have been sent to the wrong addresses, have no date or time, or do not have a court date that’s linked to an actual hearing.

If an immigrant doesn’t appear in court on the date of the NTA, a judge can order them deported. Thinking they had a court date, some immigrants have traveled miles, taken off from work, and taken their children out of school so they could show up for a court date that didn’t exist, attorneys say.

In July, attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of four legal service organizations in federal court for the Southern District of New York, saying the rocket dockets have caused chaos for immigrants.

Nicole Alberico, a spokesperson in Chicago for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the federal agency has been coordinating its notices since January with the courts.

Ashley Huebner, associate director of legal services at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, has seen no change in the tide of faulty notices in Chicago’s immigration court.

“ICE continues to issue blatantly defective NTAs, and we are regularly seeing court dates on NTAs that come and go without actually being scheduled with the court. ICE must know they are defective because they know how the system works as well as we do,” she said.

Whatever the situation, attorneys in Chicago have been leaning on a recent 7th Circuit Court ruling to challenge the defective NTAs.

The Immigration Court’s latest figures for the 10 courts with rocket dockets showed that Chicago’s judges terminated or set aside many more cases than any court, accounting for 63 percent of all terminations.

In a hallway outside of Chicago’s Immigration Court, he recently detailed the delayed hearings and distraught clients who blame him for their lengthened wait.

A few days earlier last July he was checking on the court date for an Iraqi family that had come to the U.S. in 2013.

They had waited four years for a hearing with the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service, which then turned over their case to the Immigration Court.

They were slated to have a final hearing next month, but to Ibrahim’s surprise and dismay, their case was bumped, and no new court date has been set.

He came to the U.S. as a student in 2014, finished law school and began serving clients in Immigration Court.

Source: Chicago Reporter