Thomas Harris' wife wept when she opened the letter from Minnesota's immigration court late last year. The hearing her husband had awaited for years was finally on the schedule — but not until November 2019.

Harris, a native of Liberia, has since landed a hearing date next year. But almost six years after the U.S. government first set out to revoke his permanent residency, that still seems like an excruciating wait for his day in court.

"It's like a punishment that's always there," he said.

For Harris and other immigrants, wait times for court hearings have stretched as the local Bloomington Immigration Court has hit a new high of more than 3,500 pending cases. A surge in Central American arrivals in the past two years worsened chronic backlogs: The government deemed these cases a priority amid a new focus on deporting recent border crossers and placed them at the front of the line.

For immigrants without a strong case to stay, the backlog provides lengthy reprieves, something smugglers have highlighted to attract customers. For those with legitimate asylum and other cases, it keeps them hanging, unable to set down roots in the United States, reunite with family members or travel outside the country.

"We have clients who are literally trapped in place for years because they cannot get a hearing date," said David Wilson, Harris' attorney.

Caseloads might ease this year after Congress recently approved funding to hire more immigration judges nationwide. But some experts question if that will be enough to make a timely dent in the backlogs.

Growing caseloads

The three judges in Bloomington Immigration Court had a total of 3,490 cases in September, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Justice. The Fort Snelling-based court hears cases from Minnesota, the Dakotas and western Wisconsin. Nationwide, more than 457,000 cases are pending.

Syracuse University, which compiles its own backlog data, found the number of cases locally surpassed 3,720 by the end of December — an uptick of more than 20 percent from three years ago.

Last year, it took the court 520 days on average to complete a case. But because some are resolved quickly — say, when an immigrant does not show up for a deportation hearing — that number obscures the much longer waits others face. Wilson recently wrapped up an asylum case he started in 2005 — that of an Eritrean woman who crossed the border in Mexico and claimed religious persecution back home because of her Pentecostal faith.

"We're having to set expectations for a very, very long wait when people come in," said Sarah Brenes, an attorney with Minneapolis-based nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights.

A perennial issue, the backlogs got worse in the early years of the Obama administration amid an enforcement push that resulted in record numbers of deportation cases. More recently, the administration created a new priority docket for Central American minors and families, who are arriving in unprecedented numbers, in part to counter a perception that newcomers would be allowed to stay indefinitely. In Minnesota, Judge Susan Castro took on that docket, and other cases were pushed back to a "parking date" in November 2019.

Meanwhile, court hiring has languished. Although there are about 320 authorized judge positions across the country, according to the Department of Justice, only 250 judges are working in 58 courts nationally.

Long waits for a hearing can weaken the cases of asylum seekers and keep them in limbo, advocates say. Most can get permission to work 180 days after filing their applications, but under some circumstances, they might not. They cannot sponsor family members to join them in the United States or travel outside the country.

Harris, the Liberian green card holder, says his wait has saddled him and his family with anxious uncertainty. He says he understands why the government set out to revoke his green card six years ago: At the time, he had a decade-old child neglect petty misdemeanor and a later conviction for writing bad checks. He doesn't object to being held accountable.

But he doesn't understand why it's taking so long before he can make his case in court. His mother took out a lien on her Minneapolis home for his $10,000 immigration detention bond: She pays interest on the bond each year as she worries her son will be sent back to Liberia after more than 20 years in the United States.

Wilson, his attorney, says the backlog and a bit of bad luck have conspired to extend Harris' wait. A few years ago, the day before a hearing Harris had awaited for 18 months, Wilson got a call saying the judge had a personal emergency.

"I just want to be able to move on with my life," said Harris.

Ahmed Noor arrived at the southern border of the United States two years ago and sought asylum amid continuing unrest in his native Somalia. He also got a 2019 hearing date. His wife and two children remain in Somalia, and he worries he won't see them for years.

"I was shocked," said Noor, who works as a cabdriver. "I wasn't expecting four years of waiting. And there's no guarantee."

Help on the way?

A study by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute said worsening gang violence and poverty in Central America have fueled the surge of arrivals from that region, but it also pointed to immigration court dysfunction as a factor. Smugglers have used the lengthy delays to assure clients the United States has a "de facto policy of open admission."

The long reprieves favor immigrants without a good reason to stay while denying due process to those who might qualify for asylum or other relief, says Mark Metcalf, a former immigration judge and fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reducing immigration. To make matters worse, Metcalf says, when defendants in immigration court skip their hearings, the government doesn't aggressively enforce deportation orders issued in their absence.

That sends the wrong message, Metcalf says. "People who enter our country know that we are not serious about enforcement," he says. "It creates a huge chaos in the system."

The backlogs also put pressure on judges, who have to make critical decisions in often complex cases at an ever-faster clip.

"Immigration judges are our clients' salvation, their beacon of hope, their safety net," said Wilson. "That's an incredible burden to carry."

On a recent afternoon, men in orange jumpsuits and shackled hands and feet shuffled to sit at a table facing Judge William Nickerson Jr., who handles the cases of detained immigrants.

One was a Mexican man who explained to the judge he could not afford an attorney. After firing off a series of questions, Nickerson paused to consider the case. The man has lived in the United States since 1984; he is a legal permanent resident and the father of four U.S. citizen children. But after domestic assault and identity theft convictions, the government was moving to deport him. Nickerson offered the man one week to find a lawyer.

"Otherwise, I will have to send you back to Mexico," the judge said.

Some improvement might be in sight. Deportations have dropped sharply. Local attorneys say Minnesota immigration authorities have been more open to closing some cases they don't deem priorities — allowing immigrants to stay in the country for now — or agreeing to faster case resolutions.

What's more, Congress late last year approved funding for 55 immigration judges. But Dana Leigh Marks, head of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says those hires will take time and might not be enough to offset an impending "tsunami" of judge retirements. She points to a recent estimate by the nonprofit Human Rights First that shrinking the backlog would take 280 more judges.

And as straightforward cases are resolved faster, she says, more time-consuming cases dominate dockets, which might explain a recent drop in annual close completions. Bloomington wrapped up more than 2,200 cases in fiscal year 2014, down about 15 percent from the year before.

"We're hopeful," said Brenes, "but we're not holding our breaths."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781