A Day in US Immigration Court: Lots of Cases, Not Much Resolution

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — Suzan stood before Immigration Judge John M. Bryant, asking for more time in her deportation case, which was already

more than a few years old.

The El Salvadoran transgender woman, who prefers not to be identified by her real name, came to the United States 20 years ago as a teenager, fleeing persecution. She was detained at the border.

Deportation proceedings never caught up with her — for a while, she was homeless and living on the streets — until about six years ago, when she was at a nightclub where a fight broke out. She was not charged, but police told her story to immigration officials.

“They were about to deport her. When [Suzan’s] boyfriend called me and said, ‘Look, we’ve got this situation,’ ” we filed a motion to reopen her case, Suzan’s lawyer, Xavier Racine, told VOA.

Suzan has since married her American boyfriend and is asking for time to file for 212(h) waiver (a kind of pardon) on the ground that if she is deported to her home country, she faces a grave risk of death or persecution.

Bryant heard the update and gave Suzan a new court date. Her attorney has until February 2018 to file for the waiver.


This was one of 233 cases scheduled Tuesday at the court in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington.

In the hallway outside the courtrooms hang eight lists where respondents must search for their names to learn where their cases will be heard.

The courtrooms are plain — white painted walls, no windows, 10 wooden benches that can sit about 40 people total. No one is allowed to stand up; if there are no seats available, a respondent must wait outside.

The motions are fast-paced, each one settled in five to 10 minutes.

Because immigration cases are civil proceedings, undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation do not have a right to a rapid trial or a court-appointed lawyer. If immigrants cannot find pro bono representation, they are advised by the judges to hire a lawyer. Some pay for legal aid on retainer programs — paying a small amount monthly for cases that can last years.

In Arlington on Tuesday, judges were scheduling trial dates or status update hearings from 2018 to 2020.

The immigration data tracker TRAC reports the backlog in immigration cases has swelled to 632,000 nationally. In Arlington, the backlog is 36,099 cases.

By Aline Barros for VOA NEWS
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