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For NYC migrants, just getting inside immigration courthouse is a feat

Arya Sundaram

Each weekday morning before dawn, hundreds of people stand outside the main immigration courthouse in Manhattan in a line that often curves around the building.

They arrive as early as 10 p.m. the night before, with some people wrapping themselves in cardboard to brace themselves against the cold. They covet a spot inside the federal office building, most for mandatory check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Gabriel Acosta, from Venezuela, said he arrived at 4 a.m.

“Because I have to,” he said.

“They could deport me,” another man added.

By around 7:15 a.m., police and guards cut off the line.

“You gotta come back before 5 in the morning, OK?” a guard told a group of people huddled outside in the chilly morning air. “And they only take 500 people.”

New York City’s already backlogged immigration system has been straining to accommodate an influx of more than 21,000 migrants since the spring, many of whom are new arrivals bused in from border states.

A recent change in federal border policy slowed the number of asylum-seekers entering the country and consequently being bused north, but it did nothing to fix a system many regard as broken. The logjam can have life-altering consequences, including missed deadlines and even deportation orders issued in absentia.

And another wave of migrants could well be on the way, following a federal judge’s ruling on Tuesday that struck down a Trump-era public health measure that allowed the government to quickly remove migrants who unlawfully cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigration advocates and policymakers said the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan would likely increase border crossings and put more pressure on the immigration system, including the courts.

“We are expecting more buses. A lot of it is going to depend upon what the federal government decides to do,” Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol said in a briefing with elected officials on Thursday.

He later added that officials are “evaluating all options” in case the city receives another influx of migrants.

A record backlog

The newcomers join a record-high immigration court backlog, with more than 120,000 pending cases in New York City and nearly 2 million across the country as of October, according to data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” said Maryann Tharappel, special projects director at Catholic Charities. “The system was overwhelmed and unable to effectively meet the demand prior to the recent influx, so the recent influx is just already adding to a strained system.”

For months, immigration attorneys and advocates have complained that court documents are routinely being sent to the wrong addresses. They note cases where migrants have missed hearings and been ordered deported in absentia – as they stood in the long lines outside the courthouse.

And for some migrants, the delays mean more headaches down the road: they might not meet a one-year deadline to apply for asylum because the ICE check-ins and court hearings needed to file their applications aren’t scheduled until 2024.

Pro bono lawyers say they are being flooded with requests for help, far more than they can accommodate. Where staffers at the free Immigration Court Helpdesk in the main courthouse once saw 50 to 75 daily requests for assistance, the number has surged upwards of 300.

“It’s the first time that I’ve experienced where everybody is like, ‘We’re not doing anything.’ We can’t, ’’ said Camille Mackler, executive director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative.

That’s left many new arrivals to navigate a complex legal system alone.

Meanwhile, at the courthouse at 26 Federal Plaza, formally known as the Jacob Javits Federal Building, many of those seeking help remained, even after the guards cut off the line for the day. A man holding a Metro-North Railroad ticket asked a stranger how to get back home to Connecticut. Another woman asked why she hadn’t yet been scheduled for a court date.

“It’s done,” the guards said. “Go home.”

The room was silent

At a recent weekly Zoom meeting for local immigration attorneys, Mackler posed the same question she asks every week.

“If we get a call from someone looking for a lawyer, is there anyone here who could actually do a screening? Or take on cases?” she asked.

The answer was the same: the room was silent.

“No one wants to face that question,” she said.

New York City has a robust network of lawyers providing free legal services, including to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees ahead of the recent influx of asylum-seekers, many of them from Venezuela and other countries south of the U.S.-Mexico border. But the recent influx has pushed this network to its limits.

“There’s nowhere to refer clients,” Melissa Chua, associate director of the New York Legal Assistance Group’s Immigrant Protection Unit, said in an interview. “There’s no place to send them because we know that everyone is working at capacity.”

She added, “The number of people we have to turn away has increased exponentially since the summer.”

Some local pro bono immigration attorneys said groups of new arrivals began showing up at their offices in the spring and summer. At Catholic Charities headquarters in Manhattan, handfuls of newcomers began arriving daily in the spring; the total grew upwards of 150 by the end of July, Tharappel of Catholic Charities said.

Then they started to receive court notices for clients they never met – more than 1,500 to date.

Catholic Charities and other legal groups flagged the misdirected notices to the Executive Office for Immigration Review in charge of immigration court, so the proper recipients won’t be deported for not showing up to their hearings.

The attorneys have also contacted the Department of Homeland Security and the Biden administration to halt the practice – but the letters continue to come.

“They were, supposedly as of Aug. 1, they were supposed to stop. It hasn’t stopped,” Mackler said, adding that she’s waiting to hear back from DHS about next steps. “They say that they’re working to address it, but we haven’t seen any change.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is working to address current processing delays at some ICE offices,” said Emilio Dabul, ICE public affairs officer, in a statement. “Noncitizens should review the ICE check-in criteria and, when possible, make an appointment using the ICE Appointment Scheduler.”

The New York City ICE office has also published QR codes on signs outside the courthouse that, when scanned, will direct immigrants to email the local office about their appointments. Dabul said that people who use these QR codes won’t be marked absent for their appointments, and ICE will reschedule them.

Hoping for a solution

Attorneys and advocates are calling on the local, state and federal governments to ramp up funding for immigration legal services and make more information about the legal process available to newly arrived migrants. But the fate of any such intervention remains unclear.

The New York Immigration Coalition is calling on the state and city to each provide an additional $10 million for immigration legal services as part of a package of suggested reforms to support newly arrived asylum-seekers.

Some advocates are throwing their weight behind the $300 million Access to Representation Act (S81B/A1961), which would make New York the first state to establish a right to counsel in immigration court.

The city currently spends more than $65 million on immigration legal services, funding more than 15 programs, and is looking into other options to provide legal information and support to new arrivals. But advocates say it isn’t enough.

At the Port Authority Bus Terminal, migrants disembarking buses receive flyers with instructions on how to schedule appointments at the Immigration Court Helpdesk. Inside Red Cross headquarters in Midtown, at a resource center for newly arrived asylum-seekers, the city provides legal information sessions, but it can take months to get an appointment.

“The reality is that with tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving who will need legal assistance, we might not have enough lawyers to be able to work with each of them,” Manuel Castro, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said in a City Council hearing on asylum-seeker services in September.

He added: “We are committed to meeting the most immediate needs of asylum-seekers as they arrive, which is an orientation of what the asylum-seeking process is, and how to go about applying for work permits, and connecting with legal services in our city available to all immigrants here.”

Castro has said that the city had issued a $5 million request for a private contractor to provide legal services for the new arrivals. City Hall declined to provide an update on the status of the request. Mackler said city officials told her the period to award the request had already passed.

“They were basically setting the providers up to fail,” Mackler said.

In the meantime, a lull in the number of asylum-seekers entering the country at the U.S.-Mexico border – and consequently being bused to cities like New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago – could soon end.

President Joe Biden recently relied on Title 42 to clamp down on migrants from Venezuela, who comprise the bulk of the monthslong surge in asylum-seekers to the U.S., and ultimately to New York and other northern cities.

Sullivan ruled the government policy “arbitrary and capricious” but issued a stay of his order, ostensibly to allow local, state and federal officials to prepare.

DHS said in a statement that the stay will allow “the government to prepare for a transition and to continue to manage the border in a safe, orderly and humane way.”

Originally published in Gothamist on November 18,  2022 

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