LUMPKIN, Ga. — In a locked, guarded courtroom in a compound surrounded by razor wire, Immigration Judge Jerome Rothschild waits — and stalls.
A Spanish interpreter is running late because of a flat tire. Rothschild tells the five immigrants before him that he’ll take a break before the proceedings even start. His hope: to delay just long enough so these immigrants won’t have to sit by, uncomprehendingly, as their futures are decided.
“We are, untypically, without an interpreter,” Rothschild tells a lawyer who enters the courtroom at the Stewart Detention Center after driving down from Atlanta, about 140 miles away.
In its disorder, this is, in fact, a typical day in the chaotic, crowded and confusing U.S. immigration court system of which Rothschild’s courtroom is just one small outpost.
Shrouded in secrecy, the immigration courts run by the U.S. Department of Justice have been dysfunctional for years and have only gotten worse. A surge in the arrival of asylum seekers and the Trump administration’s crackdown on the Southwest border and illegal immigration have pushed more people into deportation proceedings, swelling the court’s docket to 1 million cases.
Stakes high when seeking asylum
The stakes are high for those vying to remain in the country. Some want to stay under a provision that opens the door for those without legal papers who have American relatives.
Others, who arrived recently, are seeking asylum to protect them from violence or persecution.
Those hearings are especially daunting, and most asylum seekers don’t win.
The rest are mostly slated for deportation and often have little chance of being able to stay legally in the United States — at least for now.
Their fate often depends on the luck of the draw in a system with extreme disparities from judge to judge. There are judges who reject 99% of asylum cases before them; others approve more than 90%, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Miguel Borrayo, a 40-year-old mechanic who sits before an immigration judge in a courtroom in West Valley City, a Salt Lake City suburb, tried to find a lawyer to help him argue he should be allowed to stay in the country with his American children, despite lacking legal papers.
But he was told it would cost up to $8,000, and he didn’t have a strong case.
So he goes it alone.
Borrayo tells the judge he never had any trouble with the law since slipping across the border from Mexico in 1997 until he turned his car into a McDonald’s parking lot on a family outing for ice cream and came close to a man who was passing by.
The man was an immigration agent. Shortly after pulling into the drive-thru, Borrayo was arrested.
But Immigration Judge Philip Truman spends little time on how Borrayo ended up in his courtroom. He asks about the immigrant’s two teenage children.
Borrayo tells Truman they are both healthy and good students. His 16-year-old daughter dreams of someday becoming a veterinarian. His 13-year-old son wants to become a mechanic, like his dad.
His wife, the teens’ mother, works part time so she can care for them.
Ironically, this all dooms his case. Truman says it doesn’t seem like his children would suffer tremendously if Borrayo returned to Mexico. Regrettably, he must deport him.
He’s given a month to leave the country — one last Christmas in his family’s home surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
He shrugs off the loss and leaves the courtroom. But days later, he wonders what went wrong.
“I just tried to tell the truth so that they would help me,” he says.
‘You can’t turn the Titanic around’
“It is just a cumbersome, huge system, and yet administration upon administration comes in here and tries to use the system for their own purposes,” says Immigration Judge Amiena Khan in New York City, speaking in her role as vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
“And in every instance, the system doesn’t change on a dime, because you can’t turn the Titanic around.”
The Associated Press visited immigration courts in 11 different cities more than two dozen times during a 10-day period in late fall. In courts from Boston to San Diego, reporters observed scores of hearings that illustrated how crushing caseloads and shifting policies have landed the courts in unprecedented turmoil:
• Chasing efficiency, immigration judges double- and triple-book hearings that can’t possibly be completed, leading to numerous cancellations. Immigrants get new court dates, but not for years.
• Young children are everywhere and sit on the floor or stand or cry in cramped courtrooms. Many immigrants don’t know how to fill out forms, get records translated or present a case.
• Frequent changes in the law and rules for how judges manage their dockets make it impossible to know what the future holds when immigrants finally have their day in court. Paper files are often misplaced, and interpreters are often missing.
In Georgia, the interpreter assigned to Rothschild’s courtroom ends up making it to work, but the hearing sputters moments later when a lawyer for a Mexican man isn’t available when Rothschild calls her to appear by phone. Rothschild is placed on hold, and a bouncy beat overlaid with synthesizers fills the room.
He moves on to other cases — a Peruvian asylum seeker, a Cuban man seeking bond — and punts the missing lawyer’s case to the afternoon session.
This time, she’s there when he calls, and apologizes for not being available earlier, explaining through a hacking cough she’s been sick.
But by now the interpreter has moved on to another courtroom, putting Rothschild in what he describes as the “uneasy position” of holding court for someone who can’t understand what’s going on.
“I hate for a guy to leave a hearing having no idea what happened,” he says, and asks the lawyer to relay the results of the proceedings to her client in Spanish.
After some discussion, the lawyer agrees to withdraw the man’s bond petition and refile once she can show he’s been here longer than the government believes, which could help his chances.
For now, the man returns to detention.
Children abound in the courts
A toddler’s gleeful screams fill the immigration courtroom in West Valley City as he plays with toy cars while his mother waits for her turn to go before the judge.
Ninety minutes later, the boy is restless, and the 32-year-old woman from Honduras is still waiting in the court. She pulls out her phone, opens YouTube and plays children’s songs in Spanish to calm his cries.
There are many children in the immigration courts, though the courts are hardly a place for kids.
In Chicago, a plastic box of well-worn books in English and Spanish sits in the corner of the court waiting room. But the chairs don’t move and there are no changing tables in the bathrooms, leading a mom to change her newborn’s diaper on a narrow counter between sinks.
Many children have immigration cases of their own. AP reporters saw appearances by children as young as 3. They sit on wooden benches with their parents, grandparents or foster families.
Teenagers scroll through smartphones; a toddler with a superheroes backpack swings his tiny, sneakered feet.
There are also American-born kids tagging along with immigrant parents the government seeks to deport.
The number of children in these courts has swelled since the Obama administration and continues to grow under Trump, with border arrests — many of them children and families — soaring in May to a 13-year high.
Now, nearly 1 in 10 cases in the immigration courts is a child who came to the country without parents, court data shows. Since September 2018, another 118,000 cases involving parents and children were placed in fast-tracked proceedings aimed at deciding cases in a year.
The administration aggressively tried to slow the arrival of young migrants by separating families — a policy that was later reversed — and tightening rules for relatives to get them out of detention. But thousands still arrive each month and end up in immigration courts — sometimes, into adulthood.
Crowds in the hallways
In a federal building in downtown Manhattan, the docket lists stretch to a second page outside the immigration courtrooms. Crowds of people wait in the hallways for their turn to see a judge, murmuring to each other and their lawyers, pressing up against the wall to let others through.
Security guards pass through and chastise them to stay to the side and keep walkways clear.
Immigration judges hear 30, or 50, or close to 90 cases a day. When they assign future court dates, immigrants are asked to come back in February or March — of 2023.
The country’s biggest immigration caseload is in New York City, spread over three different buildings. One in 10 immigration court cases are conducted there, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
On average, cases on the country’s immigration docket have been churning through the courts for nearly two years. Many immigrants have been waiting much longer, especially those who aren’t held in detention facilities.
With so many cases, immigrants are often double- and triple-booked for hearings. That can turn immigration court into a high-stakes game of musical chairs, where being the odd man out has far-reaching consequences.
Rubelio Sagastume-Cardona has waited two years for a New York judge to consider whether he should get a green card.
The Guatemalan had a hearing date in May but got bumped by another case. On this day, he finds himself competing for his space on Judge Khan’s calendar with someone else’s case — a space Sagastume-Cardona only nabbed because his lawyer switched him with another client, who now must wait until 2023 for a hearing.
“It’s been more difficult to get my client’s case heard than to litigate” it, says his attorney, W. Paul Alvarez. “It’s kind of crazy.”
The protracted delays are agonizing for many immigrants and their relatives, who grapple anxiously with the uncertainty of what will happen to their loved ones — and when.
And it isn’t confined to New York. In myriad courtrooms, similar scenes play out as immigrants and their lawyers jockey for space on too-cramped calendars.
Courts in San Francisco and Los Angeles each have more than 60,000 cases. And cases have been pending an average of more than two years in courts from Arlington, Virginia, to Omaha, Nebraska, according to TRAC.
In Boston, Audencio Lopez applied for asylum seven years ago. The 39-year-old left a Guatemalan farming town to cross the border illegally as a teenager in 1997 and soon found a job at a landscaping company where he still works, maintaining the grounds at area schools. But it was just this past November that he headed to the imposing Boston courthouse to learn his fate.
He brings his wife and three children into the courtroom, including a baby girl who munches on Cheerios while sitting on her mother’s lap until his case is called.
Lopez tells the judge about his devout Christianity and Bible studies, his kids’ education at a charter school and dreams of going to college, his fear of having to move his children to a dangerous place they’ve never been.
He’s hoping to stay in the country under a provision for immigrants who have lived in the country more than a decade and have American children who would suffer if they were they gone.
After about an hour of questioning, Judge Lincoln Jalelian tells Lopez he’ll take the case under advisement. The government attorney says she won’t oppose granting Lopez a visa due to his “exemplary” record and community service, which means he’ll likely be able to stay.
But even as he dreams of his family’s future in America, Lopez admits the hope and joy are tempered by uncertainty because his wife’s status is still unresolved. She applied separately for asylum five years ago and has yet to have her immigration court hearing.
“It’s a good first step,” Lopez says a week later. He praises God, “but we hope He can show us another miracle.”
Building pressure on the judges
A piece of toast with jam sits on the desk in Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor’s Los Angeles office, half-eaten from the morning’s breakfast though it is nearly lunchtime.
On her computer, there are eight color-coded dashboards showing how close she is to meeting goals set by the Department of Justice for the country’s 440 immigration judges. Like many, she’s nowhere near completing the annual case completion target, and her dashboard is a deep red.
“So far, everyone has told us they’re failing the measure,” says Tabaddor, speaking in her capacity as president of the immigration judges’ union.
While they wear black robes and preside over hearings, immigration judges are employees of the Department of Justice and don’t have the same power or autonomy as criminal court judges.
The Trump administration has made that clear, issuing new quotas and rules for the judges and placing them under tight scrutiny in a push to move cases more quickly through the clogged courts.
The measures have pitted the judges against the agency in a full-on fight. The judges’ union has called for the courts to be made independent and free of government influence. In turn, the Department has asked federal labor authorities to put an end to the union.
“All of this is frankly psychological warfare,” Tabaddor says. “I’ve had so many people say, “I have a mortgage; I have a child who needs braces. I don’t want to fight.’”
In the immigration courts, the friction has taken its toll. Judges are overbooking calendars to try to meet quotas, while the Trump administration has limited their ability to manage dockets as they see fit, adding to the mounting backlog.
Officials also issued rulings making it tougher for immigrants fleeing gangs or domestic violence to win asylum, leading to more denials and potentially more appeals.
In a glass building overlooking the Potomac River from Fall Church, Virginia, officials at the Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review try to find ways to stay ahead of the ever-growing backlog.
They’re adding interpreters in Spanish and Mandarin, judges and clerks. They’ve started special centers to handle video hearings for immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, while smaller cities like Boise, Idaho, that were once served by traveling judges are now video-only.
They’re moving to an electronic system to try to put an end to the heaps of paper files hoisted in and out of courtrooms.
The entire effort is a quest for efficiency, though director James McHenry acknowledges “we’re still getting outpaced” by new cases.
The agency hopes tightening the system can make proceedings more efficient, while remaining fair to all. “We are trying to break down the false dichotomy between fair and efficient,” he says.