The Immigration Court System Is ‘Red Tape Gone Crazy’

Tucked in a windowless room of Chicago’s immigration court, one of the nation’s largest legal advocacy groups for immigrants runs a free help desk.

Their pace is dizzying. Most days, there’s a line outside the door, with some cases taking years to resolve. Attorneys have no printer and make copies by hand. They rarely take breaks, even to use the bathroom.

A visit to the operation — one of five nationwide — illustrates the growing burden on attorneys in the immigration courts system, where there’s no right to appointed counsel, no electronic filing, a crushing backlog and ever-shifting Trump administration policies that have created unparalleled turmoil.

“Attorneys are spending so much time on work that is effectively meaningless,” said Ashley Huebner with the Chicago-based National Immigration Justice Center, which staffs the legal help desk. “It’s unnecessary, bureaucratic red tape gone crazy.”

Notices to appear in court list times or dates when courts aren’t in session. Immigrants who don’t get copies of their asylum paperwork at the border must file formal Freedom of Information Act requests, which can take time and money. And the Trump administration has all but shut down interactions between government and immigration attorneys outside court, even for mundane matters like finding out when there’s a hearing.

The Associated Press visited immigration courts in 11 different cities more than two dozen times during a 10-day period in late fall, including Chicago’s two locations, which serve Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. They found inefficient proceedings leading to years-long gaps between court dates, misplaced files, missing interpreters and immigrants not knowing how to fill out forms or get them translated.

The legal help desk is inside the main immigration court in a downtown high-rise.

The National Immigration Justice Center began a privately funded version of the program in 2013, which was expanded in 2016 with federal funding. Currently, the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review administers similar desks in four other cities: Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Antonio.

Attorney JuanCamilo Parrado started a recent morning making rounds, informing people of their rights and the availability of free or low-cost help. A second attorney joined after waiting at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to dispute a fine for a client who voluntarily turned himself over for deportation. The situation, which would have taken a phone call under previous administrations, took three hours to resolve.

By Sophia Tareen for WBEZ91.5 CHICAGO
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