SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. immigration offices have become so overwhelmed with processing migrants for court that some asylum-seekers who crossed the border in Mexico may be waiting a decade before they even get a date to see a judge.
The backlog stems from a change made two months after President Joe Biden took office, when Border Patrol agents began the now-defunct practice of quickly releasing immigrants on parole. They were given instructions to report to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at their final destination to be processed for court — work previously done by the Border Patrol.
The change prevented the kind of massive overcrowding of holding cells in 2019, when some migrants stood on toilets for room to breathe. But the cost became evident as ICE officers tasked with issuing court papers couldn't keep pace.
Offices in some cities are now telling migrants to come back years from now, and the extra work has strained ICE's capacity for its traditional work of enforcing immigration laws in the U.S. interior.
“We’re being stretched to the limit,” said Jamison Matuszewski, director of enforcement and removal operations in San Diego.
As for migrants, waits to get a court date vary. In New York, ICE told asylum-seekers this month to return in March 2033, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, said at a recent hearing. In nine other cities — San Antonio; Miramar, Florida; Los Angeles; Jacksonville, Florida; Milwaukee; Chicago; Washington; Denver; and Mount Laurel, New Jersey — the wait is until March 2027.
Until then, the migrants in question won't even get an initial court appearance on the books, though they can live and work in the U.S. After that, their case will work its way through the U.S. immigrant courts — a process that takes about four years amid a backlog that reached 2.1 million cases in January, up from about 600,000 in 2017.
“The asylum system is in dire need of reform from top to bottom,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters last week when asked about the waits for a court notice.
Tae Johnson, ICE's acting director, told lawmakers the agency wants to use online interviews to help cut the 10-year waits and that he wants congressional authority to issue court orders electronically. He also said more funding would go a long way toward “quickly eliminating” the backlog.
Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people show up at ICE offices seeking answers. A recent Government Accountability Office report mentioned one office — city unnamed — that saw 300 to 500 recent immigrants appear some days, mostly without appointments.
"The lines outside the building are just massive,” said Camille Mackler, executive director of Immigrant ARC, a coalition of legal service providers in New York. “People are lining up the night before. It’s been chaos.”
ICE officials say it takes up to six hours to process a large family for court, fueling delays. ICE was responsible for 5.3 million cases of families and individuals not in custody at the end of February, up from 3.6 million 17 months earlier.
In March, a federal judge in Florida ordered the Biden administration to stop releasing migrants at the border with instructions to report to an ICE office. The administration didn’t appeal that ruling but had virtually ended the practice known as humanitarian parole anyway as it implemented stricter immigration measures at the U.S.-Mexico border. There were only seven cases in March.
But ICE offices — particularly in cities such as New York and Miami that are the final destination for many migrants — are still dealing with a huge backlog.
In San Diego, which is not a final destination for many migrants and therefore not as affected, people showing up get court dates immediately. But there's still a line. Shortly after opening one recent morning, a receptionist had given out some two-dozen pagers for overflow visitors to wait in a cafeteria.
ICE also still must fulfill its role of deporting people in the United States — painstaking work that can require hours of surveillance for one person.
On a recent day in Oceanside, north of San Diego, about 10 agents convened in a shopping mall parking lot at about 4 a.m. to be briefed on a 49-year-old who had been returned to Mexico 17 times since 1999. U.S. authorities believed he smuggled migrants across the border, making him a priority.
“It’s going to be quick and swift,” the lead investigator told the team, advising them that the man leaves home between 5:50 a.m. and 6:10 a.m. When the man entered his car on a quiet cul-de-sac street 10 minutes early, officers in three vehicles with flashing lights pulled up to the front, back and driver’s door.
No sirens were used and it was unlikely that neighbors were woken, except perhaps by the man’s wailing cries for his mother as he was handcuffed against his car.
Matuszewski said he has shied away from knocking on doors and cajoling people outside to make arrests, partly because it has become widely known that officers generally lack court-ordered warrants and have no authority to enter.
“Now we focus more on watching when you leave the house, where you go, where’s your business, where you stop in between,” Matuszewski said.
Despite a $9-billion budget last year, ICE has always been limited by resources. Biden tried narrowing priorities to people deemed public safety or national security threats or recent border crossers in a case that the Supreme Court is expected to decide this year.
The GAO report found 75% of migrants paroled at the border reported to ICE as instructed.
Matuszewski is turning attention to those who fail to appear.
In February, he started issuing misdemeanor citations in the San Diego region with fines up to twice the value of the monitoring device. If successful, he hopes the tactic will be used nationally.
By ELLIOT SPAGAT Associated Press
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