Immigration judges in Minnesota face a 3,000 case backlog

A case first heard in Minnesota today likely would take an average of 400 days to settle.

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High school senior Moise Damey, working out for his track team, is “in limbo” awaiting his mother’s next hearing in her bid for asylum.

Photo: DAVID JOLES • djoles@startribune.com,

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The realities of an immigration system under siege came walking one by one, in handcuffs and prison flip-flops, into the Bloomington courtroom of Judge William J. Nickerson.

In a windowless chamber with mismatched chairs and worn wood paneling, Nickerson, one of three U.S. Immigration Court judges in Minnesota, heard case after case of people from Mexico to Micronesia detained for violating U.S. immigration laws. Their appearances put faces to lives caught up in one of the country’s 59 overwhelmed immigration courts.

Intensifying enforcement has built such a backlog that an immigration case first heard in Minnesota today likely would take until next year or longer — an average of 400 days — to settle.

Even with regulations intended to speed justice, undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers wait in the community or languish in jail to find out if they will be deported.

The situation is similar across the country, where the immigration justice system is jammed with more than 350,000 cases.

Immigration attorneys and advocacy groups say the backlog is a consequence of the federal government’s decision to increase enforcement without adding resources to the immigration courts. The end of a recent hiring freeze on immigration judges may ease the problem, but for now the price is being paid by taxpayers as well as by those whose lives are on hold.

“The cost of trying to remove these people through the legal process is just staggering,” said Joe Dierkes, who recently retired as a judge from the Bloomington court after 11 years on the bench. “I laugh when people say, ‘Just deport them.’ I always ask, ‘Are you willing to pay for it?’ ”

Beginnings of the backlog

Minnesota’s backlog goes back to 2006, after President George W. Bush hired thousands of new immigration agents and stepped up raids in factories and communities. The Obama administration picked up the pace, deporting an estimated 1.9 million to date.

There are now 21,000 immigration agents patrolling the borders and $18 billion spent annually on enforcement. After a hiring freeze imposed in January 2011, the number of judges handling the cases dropped from 272 to 249.

The nation’s immigration backlog increased 104 percent between 2006 and the end of fiscal year 2013, according to data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University center that studies the immigration legal system. The Minnesota court’s caseload increased by 184 percent during the same period, according to TRAC.

“Beginning with the Bush second term, the only thing the White House and the Congress have agreed on when it comes to trying to fix immigration is enforcement,” said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. “It’s the most politically safe action.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton told immigration officials in 2011 to focus their enforcement efforts on high-level criminals. But attorney Kim Hunter, who volunteers with the Minnesota Detention Project to screen immigrants who have been detained, said ICE officials are still pressing ahead on traffic stops and minor crimes.

“It does not appear that there has been any dent in the number of people that we see who come in as a result of doing something like driving without a license,” Hunter said.

Last year, only a quarter of Minnesota’s deportees were level-one criminals convicted of aggravated felonies, according to a 2013 ICE report. The rest were convicted of lesser felonies, misdemeanors or immigration violations.

Government attorneys also have been instructed to consider factors such as a person’s ties to the United States, any criminal record and their age when deciding which cases to pursue. But since October 2012, only 8 percent of cases in Minnesota have been closed as a result of what is known as “prosecutorial discretion,” according to the TRAC data.

A spokesman for ICE acknowledged that the hiring freeze on judges contributed to the backlog. But the agency said it exercises restraint throughout the enforcement process, including the decision on whether to file a charge in the first place. With more cases dropped on the front end, the number of cases that qualify for prosecutorial discretion or administrative closure is likely to decline, said the spokesman, Shawn Neudauer.

ICE did not specifically dispute TRAC’s statistics about the backlog in Minnesota, but described the center’s conclusions as “wildly inaccurate or otherwise misleading” because of outdated or incomplete data.

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