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As Immigration Courts Face Backlogs, Advocates Say It's Time To Overhaul The System

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Immigration judges are hearing cases after a pause of more than a year due to the pandemic. These judges are facing a backlog that has ballooned to 1.3 million cases nationwide. And some people have been waiting a decade or longer for their day in court, as Houston Public Media's Elizabeth Trovall reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, so come on back with me.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: At a Houston law firm, attorney Elizabeth Mendoza introduces me to the Mendez family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Como estan?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Bien, gracias.

TROVALL: Claudia and Francisco Mendez have been seeing Mendoza for nearly 10 years about their immigration case. They came to attorney Mendoza because of their daughter, Emily.

FRANCISCO MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: Mendez explains, his daughter was born with spina bifida. Twelve-year-old Emily requires special treatment, constant care and uses a wheelchair. She's a U.S. citizen, unlike her parents who immigrated from Mexico.

F MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: Mendez says when they first came to the U.S., their visa expired, but they stayed anyway. After their daughter was born, they realized they had to fix it. They couldn't risk deportation, knowing their daughter would be helpless without them. They came to Elizabeth Mendoza to make it right. Almost a decade later, they're still waiting. I asked Claudia Mendez, the mother, how she feels.

CLAUDIA MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: She says it's stressful waiting all this time, not knowing if she'll be separated from her daughter. When it comes to long delays in immigration courts, the Mendez family isn't alone. Nationally, the average case wait time is around 2 1/2 years, according to court data obtained by Syracuse University, though many cases are delayed much longer.

ELIZABETH MENDOZA: What is the saying? Justice delayed is justice denied.

TROVALL: Attorney Elizabeth Mendoza says the backlog can put off deportation for people who may be posing a threat to the community. On the other hand, she says, other folks have a strong legal case to stay in the country, like the Mendez family.

MENDOZA: Our immigration laws afford these people an opportunity to have their day in court.

TROVALL: Immigration courts are undergoing some changes to help move through cases faster. In May, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who oversees immigration courts, told members of Congress he's adding judges, cutting hiring times and improving technology to address the backlog.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: We expect to be able to get a lot more immigration judges in than so far we have been able to hire, and then we're asking for an additional 100 as well. That should, of course, cut the backlog.

TROVALL: In his testimony recorded by C-SPAN, Garland explained he's requesting an increase to his immigration courts budget to make these changes. He also recently reversed a Trump-era decision that made it harder for judges to move cases off their dockets. But immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks, speaking as a member of the Immigration Judges Union, says courts need structural change as well.

DANA LEIGH MARKS: It has to be now because we've seen just how badly the system can break down.

TROVALL: Marks says immigration courts should operate outside the executive branch so they can't be so easily swayed by presidential politics. For example, actions taken by the Trump administration contributed to a near tripling of the court backlog. Marks says she's hopeful that legislation now being drafted will bring the structural change needed to deal with the backlog. In the meantime, the Mendez family will continue to wait.

F MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: Francisco Mendez says he's one of thousands feeling the same emotional impact, waiting anxiously for their day in court. They have a hearing scheduled for January.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.