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Continued: Immigration judges in Minnesota face a 3,000 case backlog

“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that targets serious criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities,” Neudauer said.

‘We’re in limbo’

Moise Damey tries to plan his future as an American without knowing whether a judge will let him stay.

Damey, who goes by C.J., is a 19-year-old high school senior at Prairie Seeds Academy in Brooklyn Park. A member of the National Honor Society, he plays soccer well enough to consider continuing into college, and he placed third in the state in the 100-meter dash last year.

He and his mother, Fanta Cisse, are natives of the West African country of Guinea. She has sought asylum based on fears of religious persecution as a Christian after being beaten and abused by Muslim relatives who wanted to force her into an arranged marriage with an older Muslim man, who also abused her.

Her first and only hearing was in May 2012. At that time, the judge set her next hearing for October 2015.

“We’re in limbo until then,” said Brian Dillon, a local attorney who represents the family as a volunteer with the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights. Dillon said none of his clients would flee their country and seek asylum to “game the system.” “You could be ordered to leave within 30 days if the court doesn’t grant your application. That’s incredibly unsettling.”

Damey’s future is tied to his mother’s application.

Without the final paperwork on his status, he finds it difficult to get work, although he has a permit. Some colleges have been reluctant to speak with him, despite his good grades and athletic skills. His soccer team has played abroad, but he has not traveled with them for fear that he will not be allowed back in to the United States.

“I work hard to be on the A honor roll, I’m part of the soccer team, I’m part of the National Honor Society,” he said. “The possibility of me not getting asylum puts a question in my head of what’s the point of doing all this if I might get sent back to Africa? Sometimes it just kills the spirit.”

Back to Aberdeen

There may be some hints of relief. The hiring freeze was lifted in February. The office that administers the country’s immigration courts has begun to fill more than 200 vacant positions, including at least 30 immigration judges. An attempt to hire 225 more judges stalled last year in Congress.

Meanwhile, the judges in Bloomington press on. Two judges are handling 3,000 cases of people who are not held in custody, from a region that spans Minnesota, the Dakotas and parts of Wisconsin.

On the detention docket, most appearing before Judge Nickerson seek continuances, soon to be led back to one of five jails around the state. Others are more willing to leave. Some agreed to “voluntary departure” and to footing the $743.76 cost for the federal plane ride back to Mexico.

In another courtroom, a woman from Pipestone pleads for asylum, saying Mexican drug cartels are stalking her via Facebook. Looking years younger than he is, a 15-year-old boy who made his way illegally across the Mexican border and ended up in Worthington struggles to understand an interpreter, as a reluctant-looking distant relative sits beside him.

A recent survey found that immigration judges suffer from significant symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and more burnout than groups like prison wardens and physicians in busy hospitals. Dierkes, the retired judge, said that’s why he left the bench.

“The beauty of any judicial system is when you get finality. It’s discouraging when you have to set cases out so far,” he said. “It wore me out, basically.”

On a recent day, it takes 11 minutes for the scenario to play out once again in the courtroom of Judge Kristin Olmanson. This time, the defendants were those free from custody. Without the meter running on costly detention and with little threat of clients pushing for a quicker resolution, these cases often stretch out for years.

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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.

  • The windowless basement immigration courtroom in Bloomington, where Judge William J. Nickerson presides.

  • Moise Damey, 19, right, attends Prairie Seeds Academy in Brooklyn Park. Here he chatted with fellow sprinter Mounier Peterson-Darbaki.

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