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.

"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.

One of them was a man who made the 300-mile trip from South Dakota for a hearing on his claim for asylum. His attorney tells Olmanson that the man fears persecution and torture if he is returned to Mexico.

Olmanson warns the man to get his fingerprints redone and then, after some stamping of documents and exchanging of paperwork, sets the next hearing date: Dec. 17, 2017.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028 Twitter: @amatos12