W. Pa. immigration court clogged by case backlog |

W. Pa. immigration court clogged by case backlog

A TV feed connects the small, drab courtroom in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Pittsburgh's South Side to immigration judges in Philadelphia, who decide who stays and who gets deported. This photo was taken when court was not in session.

Judge Charles M. Honeyman enters a courtroom, and a half-dozen illegal immigrants more than 300 miles away stand up.

That’s how it works in the Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, the court system that decides who stays in America and who is deported. A video feed links people in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Pittsburgh’s South Side to Honeyman and other judges in Philadelphia.

The Pittsburgh satellite court serves roughly the western third of Pennsylvania, from Erie to the West Virginia border. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and York are among 59 courts in which judges deal with more than 52,000 undocumented juveniles who have crossed the Mexican border since January.

Many came from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, seeking to escape deadly crime by narcotics cartels or to take advantage of a law written under the Bush administration to deal with human trafficking and expanded in October by the Obama administration to allow children with relatives legally in the United States to come here.

In noncriminal proceedings, the government is not required to provide lawyers to those facing deportation. Without an attorney or a trained advocate, immigrants face a 90 percent chance of being deported, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University.

Those with legal help get to stay 47 percent of the time, but a third of juveniles facing deportation have no legal representation.

Waiting game

They can expect a long wait. A Tribune-Review analysis of the Pittsburgh court’s docket data found that a case languishes, on average, for nearly 1½ years. The backlog is about 330 adult and juvenile cases, triggered by factors that include a lack of judges.

“But the big issue is representation,” said Jamie L. Englert, an accredited advocate with Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, moments after winning a case for two indigent teenage sisters from Mexico who sought to live with their mother here.

“Our staff is very small, and there are a lot of minors who need representation, so we prioritize.”

Working with a few pro bono attorneys and interns, Englert and two other staffers in the nonprofit’s Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center sift through cases to help “some of the most vulnerable people” first. Among those the shelter assists are children, the very poor and victims of spousal abuse, she said.

Englert scouts for members of the Allegheny County Bar Association who can help. Mark Harley of Schneck and Harley Immigration Law Group in Dormont, past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, estimates that about 40 to 50 attorneys in the area have the expertise to litigate these cases. Englert promises to train anyone willing to pitch in.

Firms such as Schneck and Harley take some cases pro bono and deeply discount others if they involve children, said partner Kristen Schneck. The number of court sessions are the same for children and adults (three hearings, over about 16 months), but with kids, attorneys must coordinate with social service agencies and schools.Spending package

Sen. Bob Casey thinks Congress can help illegal minors more. He’s urging lawmakers to pass a $3.7 billion emergency spending package that the White House requested on June 30.

The bill includes $1.8 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services for care of unaccompanied children and refugee services; $1.1 billion to ICE for detention and deportation of undocumented adults traveling with children, border security and transportation costs; $433 million to Customs and Border Protection, mostly for operational costs; nearly $40 million for air surveillance; and $29 million for informational sharing upgrades between agencies.

It gives $300 million to the State Department to repatriate Central Americans and help governments address causes leading to border crossings; $64 million to the Justice Department, including money for immigration judges, attorneys and staff; and $15 million to provide legal representation to juveniles.

With more judges approved for hiring starting in October, the Obama administration estimates the backlog of cases will drop by as much as 75,000.

“We can’t send many of these children back to the crime-ridden countries that they came from,” said Casey, D-Scranton. “You’re returning them to organized crime, to murder and rape and other forms of violence. Any consideration of their future should take into account the environment that these kids face if we return them.”

Though violence has beset many of these nations for decades, United Nations reports back up Casey’s point about the rapid escalation of crime in recent years.

Closing loopholes

Critics of immigration policy, however, point to a loophole in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 as a key reason for the influx of illegal immigrants. Passed with bipartisan congressional approval, the measure requires a hearing before deportation of juveniles from non-bordering nations — causing delays that lead immigrants to hope they automatically can stay, critics say.

Republicans in Congress propose a less costly immigration plan to fortify the border and increase deportations by allowing agencies to repatriate undocumented juveniles without judicial review.

A treaty between the United States and its neighbors allows repatriation without judicial review of most undocumented immigrants; most come from Mexico.

“They shouldn’t even be in immigration court to begin with. They should be transported quickly and humanely back to their home countries,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said of illegal immigrant children.

Gov. Tom Corbett told the Tribune-Review that he favors policies that boost the number of visas for educated adult immigrants and migrant farm workers. But he said it would be unfair to allow undocumented families from Central America to jump the line ahead of others waiting to enter the United States legally.

“Obviously, our efforts should be to return these children to their home of origin, not to stay here,” said Corbett, a Shaler Republican.

Detainees a danger?

ICE annually detains about 32,000 illegal immigrants — less than 10 percent of the nearly 379,0000 awaiting deportation at any given time. About half of those detained are charged with felonies, including about 1,700 violent offenses.

The government characterizes most illegal immigrants awaiting hearings as “having a low propensity for violence.”

At the Pittsburgh court, the Trib found that an average case lasts 516 days before adjudication — two months less than the national rate, but a delay critics on both sides of the debate consider too long.

“The whole system is broken,” said immigration attorney Mark A. Goldstein in his Strip District office. He ticked off problems juveniles might confront as their cases percolate through a “huge and bureaucratic system” with overdue legislative reforms.

He blames Republican infighting on Capitol Hill between a pro-business faction that wants to pardon large numbers of illegal immigrants and a bloc that wishes to boot them back across the border.

Krikorian agrees there is too much GOP squabbling but said many libertarians and Democrats “just don’t believe in national borders, much less securing them” and thwart efforts to overhaul the system.

Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7826 or [email protected].

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