Undocumented families face anxiety while waiting longer for court dates

Wait times for undocumented residents to be heard before immigration court judges are continuing to get longer, leaving those detained or out on bond unsure what the future holds.

In Hays County, one family is waiting to receive a call or letter for their hearing, a repetitive game of patience that has been practiced since February.

Victor Alejandro Avendano-Ramirez, a Wimberley resident who was detained by Kyle police after a traffic stop violation in January,  was released in February but has still not seen an immigration judge about his future residency status.

This situation is not just a reality for Avendano-Ramirez and his family, but for many immigrants in the United States awaiting a court hearing.

A new study by the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data gathering and research organization at Syracuse University, found that the Immigration Court’s backlog of cases reached an all-time high of 717,067 in May. This despite measures by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to alleviate the influx of cases.

According to TRAC’s analysis, there are 26,168 pending cases in Texas alone. Over the past two or so years, the backlog has increased by almost a third with 171,656 more cases added.

“We’re just glad he’s out, but we still don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Nataly Avendano-Ramirez, Victor’s daughter. “We have been waiting for a court date and we haven’t received one yet.”

On Friday, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) announced the investiture of 46 immigration court judges, including two assistant chief judges, marking for the second month in a row the largest class in the agency’s history, according to a statement by the DOJ.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged the backlog of over 700,000, calling the situation “unacceptable.”

“EOIR continues to make great progress in hiring the immigration judges needed to reduce a backlog of nearly 750,000 pending immigration court cases,” said James McHenry, Director of EOIR in a statement. “Alongside our efforts to improve immigration judge productivity and modernize our information technology systems, growing our immigration judge corps remains a top agency priority.”

Despite the efforts by the Attorney General, the backlog of hearings continues to plague families across the country.

Avendano-Ramirez said the situation has become more difficult as finding a lawyer willing to represent immigration hearings is hard to come by.

It’s a lot of work for lawyers and the process is very long, Nataly Avendano-Ramirez said. It’s worrying, she said.

Hoping for some change

Despite efforts to decrease the backlog of cases since 2016, extended action from President Donald Trump’s crack down on illegal immigration by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is adding the already high numbers of cases.

In 2017, Sessions announced a “streamlined hiring process” for immigration court judges, resulting in a 74 percent reduction in the time it takes to get them onboard, according to a statement by the DOJ. Since January 2017, 128 immigration court judges have been sworn in.

Locally, Nataly Avendano-Ramirez  and her family are looking to politicians for help. Beto O’Rourke, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has had close contact with Avendano and her family, using their story as a part of his platform to improve what he believes is a broken immigration system.

“It helped a lot when Beto got involved,” Avendano said. “He talked to us, used this case for his campaign. He mentioned us at the town hall he hosted in San Marcos, and his support will help us a lot going forward.”

This article is part of a series of reports that will follow the current situation of recently detained persons by ICE.

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