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January 27, 2015

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Immigration court’s caseload keeps growing in Las Vegas

Backlog adds to the time immigrants are in the system

Scheduling day at the Las Vegas Immigration Courthouse puts the problem in sharpest focus.

“Brenda Minola Ng,” Judge Roland Mullins calls out from the bench on this day, drawing out a blue manila folder stuffed with paper. For the next few minutes, he flips through the client’s docket, verifies facts and clicks around on a computer until he decides on what Brenda, an undocumented immigrant, and her husband — a legal permanent resident pursuing citizenship — had come to hear.

“Dec. 12, 2012,” he says.

Brenda Ng was one of more than a dozen undocumented immigrants facing deportation proceedings who came to the Las Vegas Immigration Courthouse last week to learn when they would next be required to show on the master calendar, which is buckling under the court’s most serious backlog on record. And it is poised to become even more unmanageable.

Nationwide, immigration courts, which are administrative courts under the Justice Department, have for the past few years faced a growing backlog of cases. It’s a problem tied to the stepped-up activities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Bush-era scandal surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ politically motivated hiring of new judges.

Nationally, the backlogs appear to be leveling off. But in Nevada, it’s taking off.

Las Vegas once had a three-judge bench, and from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2009, that bench was able to contend with yearly increases in undocumented immigrant apprehensions. But in 2009, Judge Irene Weiss retired, just as the Obama administration began to step up enforcement — a campaign that brought a 26 percent spike in cases.

It caused the docket to nearly double, from 1,144 cases in May 2009 to 2,093 in May 2010, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which collects data on various government agencies.

Las Vegas appeared to catch its breath a little over the past year, when the national Executive Office for Immigration Review transferred Judge Jeffrey Romig from its York County, Pa., office to Las Vegas.

From May 2010 to last May, despite an 11 percent increase in cases, the backlog increased just 15 percent, from 2,093 to 2,388; not bad for a court struggling to play catch-up.

“It takes time to work off a spike,” said Susan Long, a statistician and professor at Syracuse University, and co-director of TRAC, comparing Nevada’s backlog with states that have had to recover from vacancies on the bench. “If you’ve dug a hole, it takes a while to climb out of it.”

But then last month, Judge Harry Gastley retired.

“The backlog is going to be like three times more than before,” speculated immigration attorney Reza Athari, based on his experience representing immigrants. “Now, we get master calendars for next year.”

More troubling than the increase in the backlog that was posted over the past year — modest compared with what came the year before — is the increase in the average number of days it takes to process each case in Las Vegas.

In May 2009, that average time was 197 days, or about 6 1/2 months. In May 2010, even as the backlog doubled, the average time per case rose to 227 days, or about 7 1/2 months.

In May, it measured 278, almost 9 1/2 months — a full two months more than before even though the growth of the court’s backlog slowed. And that was before Gastley retired.

Longer wait times can mean more time for the immigration in question to stay in the U.S., or it can mean more time in detention.

Since February, federal immigration authorities have had a better way of handling detention cases: that's when they finalized a new contract with the city of Henderson to house apprehended immigrants awaiting processing in the Henderson City Jail.

Immigration lawyers say it's an improvement over the North Las Vegas facility that had been used as a detention center and never seemed to have enough space. The federal government pays cities to use their jails for immigration-related lockups.

“The majority of detained subjects are criminals, or mandatory detentions that are required by statute, like ICE fugitives,” said Steven Branch, field director with the agency, which processes immigrants before they are put into the court system, either through apprehension, or in cooperation with local police departments.

Those apprehended and taken to Henderson, Branch said, usually get bond hearings within two weeks, after which most return to their families, provided they show up for court dates.

But the increased number of apprehensions means more bond hearings, which mean more immigrants in the process get their cases punted down the road.

The immigration review office prohibits judges from speaking to the media. But lawyers who appear before Romig and Mullins say they think the judges are doing the best they can, although it’s not a pretty sight.

“If I’m frustrated, my mind doesn’t function the way it would when I’m not frustrated,” Athari said. “A judge cannot be ignorant to the facts of the case. But when the judge is frustrated by a gallery full of respondents sitting there, and their attorneys, obviously it would affect his ability to make proper decisions.”

The court is, for many immigrants, their last stop on the way home. Nationally, deportation rates have been on the rise; in Nevada, both acting judges deport more than 80 percent of those seeking asylum.

Las Vegas’ immigration isn’t a court like those Los Angeles or New York, where new cases top 20,000 annually, and where the backlogs were a country-leading 65,900 and 45,060, respectively, last month. About half the states are experiencing backlogs in their immigration courts.

In Las Vegas, the focus is smaller. The court — which sits in a strip mall off South Pecos Road — is in the same building as the area Homeland Security Department’s office, even though the two are unaffiliated, and immigration attorneys’ offices and even one medical facility to check on immigrants’ health dot the lot.

It can’t get much more streamlined, immigration attorneys say. But that’s why they argue the problem isn’t with the courts, it’s with the entire system.

Congress has been struggling with how to contend with the country’s undocumented immigrant population for decades. Since the last comprehensive immigration reform package passed in 1986, the population of immigrants has ballooned to estimates as high as 12 million, although recently those estimates have fallen, a sign that the recession has affected the market for off-the-books labor.

Lawmakers in Congress, mostly Democrats, have attempted to pass laws to grandfather some immigrants into the documented community; the one that came closest to passage being the Dream Act, which puts undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children on a pathway to citizenship, provided they enroll in college or the military, are of good moral character, and are under age 35.

But what’s gained more traction are efforts to enforce the laws on the books. That has translated into increased apprehensions, of both ordinary and especially criminal illegal immigrants, more deportations and higher backlogs.

The growing backlogs, advocates say, illustrate just how untenable the idea is that legal and enforcement action will solve the country’s immigration quandary, even at the levels it’s being pursued now.

“It doesn’t matter how many judges you hire,” Athari said. “As long as you keep deporting more people — and the Obama administration has surpassed any other administration before it — there’s no end to it.”

Sun reporter Conor Shine contributed to this story.

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  1. What's Athari whining about? This is full employment for him. As for his assertion there is no end to it - BS! Securing the borders will end the flood of illegals swarming them. That's the 1st step. Then crack down on employers who hire illegals. Heavy fines and revocation of business licenses should make them think twice! As jobs dry up for illegals, they will leave. Then increase the means for them to return LEGALLY to work in the USA. Reduce the red tape and eliminate "quotas!" Most of those who are here illegally are upstanding citizens who truly want to better their lives and they should be allowed to do so as long as they come in through the front door and do not sneak into our country.

  2. What's so difficult? They're here "illegally," you deport 'em. Next case... Easy as one two three...

  3. Here is where it gets tricky. I know a young girl, she just graduated with honors from a local school. She barely speaks Spanish, though her English is perfect. She's been here since she was two years old.

    She's a good kid. She didn't make the decision to hop the border, her parents did. If you want to send them back.. fine, but I am not okay with chucking this young girl over the border to a country she hasn't seen since she was two.

    Yes, she's an illegal alien, but she grew up K-12 here. What should we do with her? Deport?

  4. "Next Opinion" the answer is easy, she may be a good kid, and her parents brought her here before she was able to understand right from wrong.... but the fact is, she's here "Illegally" and so are her parent(s). So, the right thing to do under our laws is to deport her and her parents, Period!

  5. The sad part is the hate and venom that people bring to this situation . They have no place in the discussion . To punish anyone for the crimes of their parents is unacceptable . Until we solve this problem it will continue to breed contempt from both sides . Those that want lower taxes seem to forget that 12 million new taxpayers could help carry the load . 12 million new applicants to social security would save it with no change to retirement age .

  6. For: The Next Opinion, multiply that figure 80 fold, and that is what I witness as a teacher and am profoundly sad about that situation. What's worse, is that the DREAM ACT, as written, simply should not be passed, it needs revision in order to be viable. It the meantime, children are the property of their parents until they are no longer legally minors. And I guess, it is a risk, their parents and families are more than willing to take. The odds are on their side with the possibility of being caught and deported, for now.

    But the fact remains that if a person enters and stays in the USA ILLEGALLY, then they are ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS and should be prosecuted according to the laws of the land. My Grandparents came here legally and became legal citizens, had 10 kids, no welfare, built a business, sent all children to Catholic School.

    So, given this, and although I feel for all who are oppressed by their governments or lack thereof, those here ILLEGALLY, need to immediately seek the path towards to USA citizenship or be removed from our now economically struggling country. If they can find sponsors, all the better, but they must follow the legal path, anything other is CRIMINAL.

    There have been times in my life that I, a legal American, have had to compete for a job that an employer gave to an illegal. This includes farm labor jobs, housekeeping jobs, service jobs, etc., so no one is going to tell me that all the illegals are taking jobs Americans won't work. That's a bunch of crap. It's no longer a funny joke, when an illegal can walk into the welfare office with virtually no documentation and get services immediately, while an American Citizen is put through every hoop imaginable and must wait, and suffer. No parity here.

    Illegal immigrants have adversely affected our country's economics and has no intention, overall, to assimilate into the American culture: speak, read, write, and count in the English language. This is turning the USA into a 3rd world country exponentially.

  7. Sorry, wedo. Those 12 million new tax payers you speak of use more resources than any other group. Education, ESL, medical, criminal, translators, traffic, housing, welfare, etc. No, they will not save us. They will bury us. Go back over the border,file your papers for reentry, and when the court reviews it, fine. Until then they need to leave. No hate and venom. Just follow the law.

  8. A problem everyone, from our politicians on down, seems to overlook is the education factor. Teaching children of Illegal Aliens, who don't (and many don't) speak, understand or write English, is taking teacher resources away from teaching our American students. I'm not just talking about Illegal Aliens from Mexico, but Illegal Aliens from all countries. This problem creates a situation for which OUR children suffer and the Illegal Aliens gain... Enough free rides...

  9. To Jack Melcher: You are correct, it is a HUGE economic impact on funding of education, to adjust for students and their families who are non-English speaking. What is worse, is that the children who come to school these days, are more often now, born in the USA by ILLEGAL parents, they are a citizen thrown into an English speaking, reading, and writing world, while their parent does little to nothing about learning the language, and therefore cannot effectively support their child(ren) through the American Educational System! Teachers often get unfairly blamed for this situation. Teachers try to extend resources and even tutor (on their own time) such parents, in hopes that this spark of help with motivate the non-English speaking parent/family to learn English. Thirteen years of FREE public American schooling is a long time. They really have NO excuse.

    Let me assure readers that teachers do differentiate in their classes in order to support each student with their individual needs. This is very complicated, requires a great deal of planning and a good relationship between teacher and students. All students do make gains, in their own ways, they grow and learn, and hopefully go out into the world and apply what they learn in a meaningful way.

    It is tragic that these students' illegal parents can't get it through their heads how important it is to become legal, learn English, and assimilate into the American culture.

  10. StanG says: "And if you think a wall will stop anyone, you're a moron."


    The best account I read about this problem is a book called "The Reaper's Line" by Lee Morgan II. Mr. Morgan is a retired Border Patrol Agent. He knows intimately the problems encountered on the border and on the national political stage.

    In his book, he basically says that if you build a wall, they will still go over it, around it, under it, over it and through it.

    The only thing that will solve the problem to the south is for the economy of Mexico to straighten out and get better. Right now, the existing truth is that once someone goes across the border into America, they are raising their standard of living 300 percent.

    THAT is the problem. To approach it any other way is madness and a waste of money.

    This article basically states what an incredible problem it is. Because Mexico is trying to straighten their affairs out, but it's an ongoing proposition.

    To just scream throw their fanny perpediculars out is not going to solve anything. Nor is demonizing people who are only trying to survive and live.

    The actual problem is that politically we are paralyzed, incapable of addressing the problem logically. One side screams to incite a base of people to get votes, but have no earthly clue what to do, so they just exploit it for gain (Republicans). The other side puts ideas on the table, and even some ideas that the Republicans have proposed in the past, but they are completely and utterly shot down continually (Democrats). One side thinks it's better to just sit and do nothing in order to make Democrats in power look bad. Party politics propels Republicans in their lust for power madness.

    Get used to the immigration problem. They're not going away. Not unless politicians look at it seriously and take steps to relieve the problems that cause America to spend money like crazy. Courts bogged down. Litigation out the ying yang. Law enforcement paralyzed dealing with border crossers. Even National Guard and miitary involved. We're spinning wheels. Going really fast, but going nowhere. Get used to it.

    Just the way it is in our polarized politics nowadays.

  11. Kick all the illegals out. My wife and I are both immigrants. It cost us thousands of dollars to come here legally, and due to waiting periods and legal BS it took us 7 YEARS to get our minor children to join us here, but it's all 100% legal. Am I supposed to feel sorry for some criminals who decided to crawl across the border and the losers supporting them ? Nobody helped us. Ship them back, and shoot whoever is trying to illegally cross the border. The politicians from Reagan with his first amnesty on down have failed this country miserably.

  12. Why not force these criminals to first "work off" their debt to our society in a 'work camp" ie factory making crap we now import from China? Why not? We hear "they like to work" so much, good! Put them to work on a production line. If they refuse to work, 24/7 lock up with inferior food. Problem solved.

  13. Just reading the comments on this story will tell you we have a multitude of problems, only one of which is "illegal immigrants"...

    Solid take.
    All the neanderthal thinking & all the hate in the world will not solve our immigration problemo.

  14. The same Congress that is sow concerned about the Defict is the same one that won't allow the current Administration to fill the vacancies in the Bench. So, since there are not enough judges to deal with the work, all taxpayer dollars flow out to keep people in jails while they are waiting for their cases to be heard. How about cutting some unnecessary spending by filling the judicial vacancies?

  15. "Makes you feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game." -- Bob Dylan "Hurricane"