Costly justice 

The closure of a local hearing site along with a record-breaking backlog of cases make court proceedings costly and slow.

click to enlarge Local immigration attorneys are advocating for an immigration hearing site to open back up in Oklahoma. - ALEXA ACE
  • Alexa Ace
  • Local immigration attorneys are advocating for an immigration hearing site to open back up in Oklahoma.

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Carlos came to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico, about 35 years ago. An undocumented immigrant, Carlos has lived in New Mexico, Kansas and most recently Oklahoma with his family in pursuit of the American Dream.

But that dream has been a letdown. For the past three years, he has been dealing with an immigration case that could put his son’s health in danger.

Carlos — who is identified in this story with a pseudonym due to the sensitive nature of his case — is eligible for a green card through a policy that applies to immigrants who meet certain requirements and whose deportation would cause extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

“He was placed for removal in February of 2016, set for his trial in June of ’17, and then it disappeared off the docket,” said Kelli J. Stump, his immigration attorney and secretary of American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Due to a record-breaking backlog of cases clogging the nation’s immigration courts, Stump said when his case returned to the docket, his next hearing date was scheduled years out.

“It’s like two years from now, and the chances of it getting pushed again are extremely high,” she said.

That is what worries Carlos and Stump the most. His son has a rare immune disorder that requires monthly shots costing his family about $8,000. If his case isn’t heard before his son turns 21, Carlos will lose eligibility for a green card.

While his case is unique, data from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University shows that in June, roughly 945,000 cases were pending across all immigration courts. Waiting years for a court date has become the norm.

That wait is complicated by the absence of a full court to hear immigration cases in Oklahoma. Until 2014, Oklahoma City was home to an immigration court hearing site, which was a sub-office of Dallas’ immigration court. When the OKC site shut down, hearings were moved to the immigration court in Dallas, about three hours away.

Carlos’s case began after Oklahoma City’s hearing site closed, which meant he had to pay his daughters to drive him three hours to Dallas for an initial court appearance that took roughly 30 minutes. Carlos, whose interview is translated from Spanish, said waiting is frustrating.

“I’ve been to [the Dallas court] once,” he said. “They told me everything was fine and that I would get another court date, but they keep pushing the date back.”

‘Critical burden’

According to interviews with seven Oklahoma City immigration attorneys, the hearing site’s closure placed a financial burden on clients who must cover their travel costs to Dallas, the home of a chaotic immigration court where last-minute hearing cancelations are common. Many of the attorneys said they had previously traveled to a hearing in Dallas only to learn the proceeding had been rescheduled at the last minute. In some cases, the hearing had been canceled days earlier and court staff had neglected to tell them.

Attorneys also expressed concerns that rising costs, combined with fewer local options for representation, could impact immigrants’ access to counsel.

Oklahoma City’s hearing location was originally based in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in office space for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Although the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is responsible for overseeing the nation’s immigration court system, an EOIR spokesperson said by email that the department did not manage the Oklahoma City site.

The Oklahoman reported that the Department of Justice had attempted to shut down the court in 2013 but agreed with ICE to keep it open.

Before closing, Oklahoma City’s hearing location had already been downsized. Initially, one week out of the month, a Dallas judge traveled to Oklahoma City for hearings, which were reduced to tele-hearings that a judge presided over from Dallas.

An EOIR spokesperson said by email that the site closed because ICE “was no longer able to assist with staffing the hearing room.”

Immigration attorneys said the hearing site relied on an ICE staffer to run the tele-hearing equipment, but when she left for another position, ICE opted not to replace her.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

The closure left Oklahoma without an immigration court, excluding a tele-hearing site in the Tulsa County jail.

At the time of its closure, the court had a backlog of 1,240 cases, up from just 167 pending cases seven years before. Oklahoma City’s climbing number of pending cases mirrored a national backlog of immigration cases that reached an all-time high in 2014 with about 375,500 cases. That number has since more than doubled.

“EOIR constantly monitors its caseload nationwide and shifts resources to meet needs in the most efficient manner possible,” a spokesperson said by email.

Also reflective of immigration courts across the country at the time, Oklahoma City’s court saw a surge of defendants from the Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — as migrants fled violence in the region.

For proceedings called merit hearings, where defendants present their cases, immigration attorneys said that clients, their families, witnesses and expert witnesses, who are paid to testify, travel from Oklahoma City to Dallas, which is about 200 miles away. For defendants from the remote Oklahoma Panhandle town of Guymon, the trek is more than twice as long.

Defendants must pay their own travel costs out of pocket, and they also have to compensate their attorneys and expert witnesses for their time and travel expenses.

“It’s a critical burden to them,” said Stump. “Because sometimes, even if it’s not me that they’re paying to go, if we have an expert witness, for example, now the expert witness has to travel further, so it could be cost-prohibitive to present a defense.”

Some defendants lack transportation or funds to travel to Dallas for court, and even when they do, obstacles like snowstorms or flooding can lead to missed hearings.

Immigration attorneys expressed concerns that defendants in the area might face not only higher costs, but also difficulty finding a local lawyer to represent them.

“I do know several immigration lawyers that stopped taking removal cases because they didn’t want to have to deal with traveling to Dallas, and that means less options for clients,” immigration attorney Giovanni I. Perry said.

Defendants can save money on travel expenses by hiring a Dallas attorney, but local attorneys said communicating long-distance is less effective. Another option is navigating the immigration court system without an attorney, which is challenging and increases the likelihood of the defendant losing the case.

“It can be really detrimental and prevent people from having justice,” immigration attorney Larry E. Davis said. “Even with attorneys, it’s a lot of problems, but when you’re not represented, it’s even double the problems.”

Site plan

Immigration attorney Michelle L. Edstrom has been coordinating with a local judge and Oklahoma Western District Court to try to bring the hearings back via teleconferencing.

The attorney has spoken with Barbara T. Baker, the Dallas immigration court administrator, who Edstrom said has been receptive to the idea but wants to see a more concrete, written plan to avoid any scheduling conflicts.

“We’ve also worked with Sen. James Lankford’s office, so there’s a lot of people trying to work on this. It’s just trying to get through the red tape that’s required to actually make something happen,” Edstrom said. “We don’t have a written plan. There’s been talk about it, but ... we don’t have anything in writing yet. We’re hoping to get Lankford’s office to help us with that.”

Baker referred an interview request to an EOIR spokesperson, who said by email that court staff do not do interviews.

Paola M. Alvarez de Bennett, another local immigration attorney, said teleconferencing would not be suitable for trial hearings, but it would make master hearings much more efficient. However, neither attorney has been given a clear answer on who would make the final decision to bring the video hearings back to Oklahoma City.

“Miss Edstrom has done quite a lot of the groundwork, and it’s almost needing whoever has the magic signature to sign off on it and getting it done,” Alvarez de Bennett said. “They haven’t given us a black-and-white answer. Basically, what she said is that they have to have more of a concrete plan, not a theoretical plan, in place to present to the chief judge to get it signed off on.”

When posed questions regarding the agency’s response to the attorney’s lobbying efforts, EOIR declined to comment.

In a statement, Lankford said, “Our nation’s immigration court backlog is far too large, and the decision to close the OKC immigration court facility in 2014 made a bad situation worse.”

He added that the Department of Justice has video teleconference abilities that “would alleviate wait times and ensure proper and swift application of the law.”

“I have strongly advocated that DOJ pursue the video telecourt option, and I will continue to advocate DOJ do that to ensure Oklahomans can access federal services paid for by their hard-earned tax dollars,” Lankford said. “I look forward to DOJ pursuing as many options as possible for those seeking to go through our legal immigration process efficiently, with full due process and with as few additional costs as possible.”

According to EOIR’s list of court locations, Oklahoma is one of 21 states without an immigration court.

The closure of Oklahoma’s court, combined with the Dallas immigration court’s backlog, has caused even the simplest cases to take much longer than they normally would. Carlos just hopes he is able to resolve his situation before his son becomes an adult in the eyes of the law.

“I feel sad and desperate because my case won’t end. I want it to end, but at the same time, I don’t. If they’re going to deny me, I don’t know who I would leave my kids with,” Carlos said. “I have to take care of my kids. My situation makes me sad, but we’ll see what happens. I can’t do anything. I just keep working and waiting.”

This story was produced in partnership with news nonprofit Big If True. Mollie Bryant, Big If True’s founder and editor, can be reached at bryant@bigiftrue.org or 405-990-0988.
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