Immigration caseload is growing
by: GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010
7/18/2010 7:43:14 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY — At a Monday immigration court session, Judge Richard R. Ozmun set hearings after presiding over arguments in two cases originating in Tulsa County.
The next available hearing dates are in 2011.
In one case, a single man with American children and grandchildren was arrested after a therapist contacted police when his 16-year-old daughter said he allegedly hit her during an argument about her behavior, his attorney said. He entered the country illegally in 1980.
The other case is a Tulsa resident who came to the country illegally in 1997, married a U.S. citizen and fathered four American-born children. He was stopped by Tulsa police for speeding and detained for immigration, his attorney said.
Both immigrants want a hearing to argue legal reasons for relief from the U.S. Homeland Security's orders to leave. Dates for those hearings are in April 2011 and May 2011.
"This crazy calendar makes it so far out," Ozmun said from the bench while looking at the schedule.
Oklahoma's immigration court, which is part of the regional Dallas office, is experiencing a decade-high number of cases and an increasing backlog.
Immigrants will wait at least nine months to a year between the initial appearance and a hearing date. In some larger cities, the wait can be up to three years.
In most cases, they will be free on bond while awaiting a resolution of their case.
Criminal prosecutions referred by the two largest immigration investigative divisions within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are also rising, according to a recent report from a University of Syracuse-based data tracking organization.
This leap in prosecutions has reached comparable levels last experienced during the Bush Administration, according to the report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a non-profit organization.
While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security handles enforcement of immigration laws, the U.S. Department of Justice oversees administrative hearings immigrants may seek to protest removal orders.
Two major parts of the administrative process are the initial appearance, called a master calendar, and following that, a hearing on the merits.
"It used to be within six months, now it's pushing close to a year," said Tulsa attorney David Sobel, who has specialized in immigration law for more than a decade.
"For a lot people, time is their ally. The laws may change or something else can happen in their favor."
The Dallas immigration court, which has jurisdiction over Oklahoma cases, have experienced a growth of about 12 percent since 2000, according to the Justice Department.
Nationally, cases received by the courts compared with 2008 levels vary, with the largest increase in Tucson, Ariz., a 279 percent increase.
Cases reached an all-time high of nearly 243,000 at the end of March, an increase of 6 percent from November and about 30 percent higher than October 2008, according to TRAC.
The Justice Department has 230 judges across the nation hearing cases, which are guided by U.S. law and past legal precedents.
Tulsa attorney Ian Brattlie, who handles immigration cases for Catholic Charities, said the time lag impacts private attorneys more than those in the nonprofit sector or providing representation pro bono.
Typically, it is more difficult for a private attorney to take on cases that may have a long wait based on the fees collected for rendering services.
"Aliens, obviously, have a different stress when being in removal proceedings to over a year," Brattlie said. "But as a general rule, I prefer longer dockets to short ones."
The wait for a resolution has grown to a national average of about 443 days, with California topping the list at an average wait of 619 days.
Oklahoma's wait time is just under a year, according to TRAC.
"Most of the time this is beneficial to the client as it gives them the time to gather all the documentation the court needs to be able to properly evaluate their cases," said Oklahoma City immigration attorney Larry Davis.
"Oklahoma City it doing pretty good compared to other parts of the country. I understand that Atlanta is two years out and that Los Angeles and San Francisco are almost three years out."
A TRAC report released in May states that caseloads vary based on factors such as changing enforcement in different states and municipalities.
"The backlogs of pending cases are driven by numerous factors. Chief among them is the number of available judges in a particular locality relative to the caseload demand," the report states.
"Also important is the number of available judges. One court may have added more judges, while another may have recently lost a judge whether through retirement, promotion, transfer or death. Adding to this mix of forces is the different composition of cases that each hearing location handles."
Nearly all Oklahoma hearings are held at the Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office located in Oklahoma City.
For inmates convicted of crimes and serving sentences in prisons, hearings may be held at the detention center.
The hearings in detention centers generally have shorter wait times because the Justice Department usually assigns a higher priority to prevent backlogs at the facilities, according to the report.
"The Court does schedule detained alien cases much quicker, usually within six weeks," Davis said. "This is probably good because most of those types of cases involve more serious offenses."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Customs and Border Protection agencies referred 9,135 new cases for prosecution, according to TRAC, which uses the federal Freedom of Information Act to retrieve the data.
These prosecutions are handled by U.S. attorneys in federal courts.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement set a record number of prosecution referrals since the agency's creation in 2005.
In March and April, the agency referred 4,145 cases, which surpasses the previous high of 3,777 in July and August 2008 and 3,787 in July and August 2009.
The most common charge is for "re-entry of a deported alien," with 2,285 filings in U.S. district courts in April. The second-highest offense is "bringing in and harboring certain aliens," with 329 charges filed in April.
The U.S. magistrate courts handle less serious misdemeanor cases, with the most frequent filing (63 percent) involves "entry of alien at improper time or place."
In Tulsa's U.S. Northern District Court, the prosecutions have more than tripled — from six cases last year to 21 cases so far this year. All are for immigrants illegally living in the country after a previous deportation.
Local federal officials cite new Homeland Security programs for the increase. These programs allow for a person's citizenship status to be detected by jail or prison officials after coming into custody.
If convicted of immigration violations prosecuted by a U.S. attorney, a defendant could face up to 20 years in a U.S. prison before facing deportation.
During March and April, 14,912 new cases were referred by Customs and Border Protection. That total is the highest two-month amount since September and October 2008, when the figure was 16,127, according to TRAC.
About 98 percent of customs and border referrals went to judicial districts in border states — Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico.
"In contrast, ICE activity was spread through the U.S. with the southwest border districts accounting for less than half of prosecutions referred by that agency," the TRAC report states. "While the southwest border districts showed a jump of one third, the rest of the nation showed an even larger increase (51%) from the levels seen two months earlier."