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A Day in US Immigration Court


The Arlington Immigration Court building in Arlington, Virginia. The courtrooms inside are plain, and cases are dispatched quickly, each one settled in five to 10 minutes. (A. Barros/VOA)

Suzan stood before Immigration Judge John. M. Bryant last month at a courthouse in the American state of Virginia.

The El Salvadoran national asked the judge for more time in her case, which is already more than a few years old.

Immigration officials say Suzan entered the United States illegally. The government wants to send her back to El Salvador.

Suzan, a transgender woman, does not want to be identified in this story by her real name. She says she came to the United States as a teenager 20 years ago to flee oppression. She was immediately detained at the border, but later released.

Suzan avoided deportation. For a while, she was homeless and sleeping on the streets. Six years ago, she was at a nightclub when people started fighting. She was not charged, but the police called immigration enforcement.

“They were about to deport her when her boyfriend called me and said, ’look we’ve got this situation,’” Suzan’s lawyer Xavier Racine told VOA.

Suzan has since married her boyfriend, an American, and is asking for time to prepare documents requesting a legal pardon. The lawyer claims that if she returns to her home country, she faces the risk of punishment or death.

Judge Bryant hears the argument and gives Suzan a new court date. Her lawyer has until February 2018 to make the appeal.

This was one of the 233 cases planned for September 19 at the immigration court in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C.

Case Backlog

Outside the courtrooms hang eight lists where defendants must search for their names to find the number of the room where their case will be heard.

Each courtroom has white walls, no windows and 10 wooden benches that can seat about 40 people. If no seating is available, a person must wait outside the room.

The legal motions are settled quickly. Each one is settled in five to ten minutes.

Because immigration cases are civil actions, and not criminal, immigrants facing deportation do not have a right to a fast trial or free legal advice. If immigrants cannot find a lawyer willing to work for free, they are advised by the judge to hire an attorney.

In Arlington, judges were setting trial dates or hearings from 2018 to 2020.

The immigration data tracker website TRAC reports the backlog in immigration cases has risen to 632,000 nationwide.

Cost of Delay

Dana Leigh Marks is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. She told VOA the organization has been critical of the immigration policies of both President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama.

Delays can have harmful effects, Marks said. “What do you do if something happened to that person’s life, or the evidence becomes stale (and) it has to be done again? Their attorney could retire or become ill or no longer be able to take cases and they may have to get a new attorney.”

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) says the United States has 334 immigration judges. In August, EOIR swore-in nine judges to fill positions in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Texas. President Trump’s 2018 budget called for hiring 75 more EOIR judges. It takes two years to hire an immigration judge, according to a Government Accounting Office report.

The Land of ZAR

Asylum seekers from a number of countries were among those appearing in Arlington immigration court on September 19. They came from Central America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Immigration lawyer Lysandra Pachuta was representing a 16-year-old. Federal law gives immigration officers primary jurisdiction over asylum claims that come from young people without a guardian. That is because it seems less frightening for a child to sit down and tell his or her story to an officer in a small office than to present a case in a courtroom.

ZAR is a term for the Arlington Asylum Office. Judge Bryant called it “Land of ZAR” as a way to make children less afraid. He is firm with his rulings, but respectful with each person.

Bryant asked each child how they are doing in school and wished them “the best in life.”

Senorita Verde

Bryant set aside the last two hours of the day for children who were having their first hearing that day.

The court’s clerk began to call cases. About six children were in the room, some with parents and others with legal guardians and attorneys.

An eight-year-old girl, wearing bright green clothing, stood up and walked to the respondent’s chair. She was with her mother and her younger brother.

Judge Bryant remembered that the Spanish word for green is verde.

Senorita Verde, how are you today?” he asked.

The girl said that she was fine.

Judge Bryant got the most recent information on her case and set a new court date. He wished the girl and her brother a great school year.

The family will return to court in 2018.

Alice Barros reported this story for VOANews.com. Susan Shand adapted her report for Learning English. The editor was George Grow.

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Words in This Story

transgender adj. of or relating to people whose gender identify differs from the sex the person had at birth

gender – n. the behavioral or cultural qualities normally connected with one sex

deportationn. the removal of expulsion of someone from a country

nightclubn. a business providing music and space for dancing

hirev. to employ the services of someone

backlogn. unfinished or incomplete work

staleadj. no longer new; getting old

jurisdictionn. the power or right to govern something

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