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Recently-arrived migrants in a crowd looking at paper with a security guard

Migrants Encounter ‘Chaos and Confusion’ in New York Immigration Courts

Hurubie Meko 
The New York Times

It was just past dawn, but people were already crowding around an Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee stationed outside a Manhattan courthouse one morning this fall.

He told each person the same thing: The ICE field office had reached capacity. Five hundred people were already inside. “Take the email and go home,” he said.

Some took pictures of a poster displaying email addresses for the federal immigration agency. Others wandered to an immigration court entrance around the corner, only to be turned back. Dozens stood around clutching orders telling them they had to report in person that day to a building they couldn’t enter.

“That’s playing games,” said Severino Macias, of Brooklyn, who accompanied his daughter-in-law, who had arrived in New York City from Ecuador in September. “What’s going on?”

The scene at the courthouse, where migrants were trying to keep appointments for ICE check-ins, captured the chaos that lawyers and organizations that help immigrants have been warning about since thousands of new migrants began arriving in the city this year: An already strained immigration system is becoming even more swamped, a problem that is likely to get worse as immigrants face deadlines to apply for asylum next year.

While an abrupt shift in the federal administration’s immigration policy has slowed down the daily arrival of migrants, more than 21,000 people are already in New York City and many hope to gain legal status through the asylum process. They will join a line that already includes about 180,000 pending cases in New York State immigration courts, which are handled by 88 judges.

For months, immigration agencies have said the system is breaking down. Court documents have been sent to addresses that seem chosen arbitrarily. Some new arrivals have received initial court hearing dates that are long past their deadline to apply for asylum. Lawyers say courts have lost paperwork and turned away people with scheduled hearings at the door. And many migrants will have to navigate the system alone, because of a shortage of immigration attorneys and advocates.

Jodi Ziesemer, director of New York Legal Assistance Group’s immigrant protection unit, said the “chaos and confusion” in the immigration system is worse than normal. “That comes at the expense of people’s rights and people’s ability to seek legal protection in the United States,” she said.

Migrants seeking asylum have to apply within one year. When migrants who arrived this summer come up against that deadline, the immigration court system is going to become even more overtaxed, said Maryann Tharappel, who directs immigrant and refugee services at the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. It can already take up to five years for asylum cases to be heard.

A likely result is that many new arrivals, frustrated by the wait to get a work permit and unable to survive here without working, will look for jobs in the city’s underground economy and join a pre-existing pool of about 500,000 undocumented workers in the city.

The city already had one of the largest immigration court backlogs in the country, second to Miami in the 2022 fiscal year. Nationally, there were about 1.7 million open cases in immigration courts during the last fiscal year, which ended in June.

The new arrivals represent a growing trend in immigration to the United States, in which more newcomers are applying for asylum after they cross the border, in the hopes of achieving permanent legal status eventually. The odds that they’ll succeed are long. Immigration judges granted asylum in about 14 percent of the cases heard during the last fiscal year.

Still, people who seek asylum are allowed to remain in country to await a decision in their case. Customs and Border Protection officials release them from custody meantime, and they are expected to report to immigration authorities regularly. Some are monitored through ICE’s Alternative to Detention program, which uses a variety of ways to track people, including GPS tracking, a facial recognition phone application and telephones.

Last year, in an effort to alleviate the amount of time families were held in immigration detention centers, Border Patrol began releasing people with instructions to report to ICE field offices. Most immigrants are dutiful about checking in. A September report from a government watchdog group found that ICE had trouble locating about a quarter of the families processed through the beginning of March.

Missing the in-person ICE appointment is usually not a problem, said Isejn Marku, a private immigration attorney in New York. ICE officers aren’t able to meet with everyone scheduled on a given day, he said, so they are unlikely to count a missed appointment as a strike against them.

The local ICE office did not respond to questions about how many appointments are scheduled daily at its Manhattan location, why people with appointments were not allowed into the building and if missing person check-ins will affect their cases.

But other lawyers say the chaos could end up hurting the chances some migrants have of winning an asylum case and avoiding deportation. Analysts at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that one in six new cases — or about 63,0000 — were dismissed last year because Border Patrol agents failed to file paperwork with immigration courts, something that rarely happened a decade ago, the report said.

Many new migrants have arrived with nowhere to go. Thousands have come from Venezuela, for example, and landed in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., which lack established Venezuelan communities.

When immigrants arrive without the address of a final destination, immigration advocacy groups say that in some cases, agents have directed their paperwork to be mailed to nonprofits and other organizations in cities where migrants signal they want to travel. Ms. Tharappel said her organization has received over 1,500 notices for immigrants they’ve never had contact with.

Border Patrol agents are required to make every effort to confirm that addresses provided to them by migrants are valid, said a Department of Homeland Security spokesman. People who don’t have an address for a sponsor can provide the address of a nongovernmental organization. They are also given instructions on how to change their address, he said. At a minimum, agents include a city and state on paperwork.

A spokeswoman for the immigration courts said the agency was unaware of any people who were turned away from scheduled court hearings and is working with the Department of Homeland Security on the issues of incorrect addresses on notices. Judges are aware of the issues when adjudicating cases, she added.

Mr. Marku said he’s never seen the city’s immigration courts as busy in his 27-year career as an immigration attorney.

“They don’t have enough judges, they don’t have enough government attorneys, they don’t have the support staff to get it done,” he said.

Still, court and ICE personnel were doing better than he expected in keeping up with the volume of cases, said Mr. Marku, who primarily works with clients from the Balkans and a few from Ecuador and Peru. “They are moving, and I have to give credit where credit is due,” he said.

The State Legislature increased the funding for immigration services in the budget earlier this year. Gov. Kathy Hochul launched an institute that will be focused on creating policy solutions to assist immigrants. And a bill proposed by state lawmakers, which has yet to pass, would guarantee legal representation for people in immigration courts.

However, in New York City, “there’s just not enough lawyers,” said Ms. Ziesemer.

In front of the ICE office on a recent Wednesday morning, Angelo Perez-Trompetero sat on the steps, typing on his phone and flipping through his immigration documents.

Mr. Perez-Trompetero, 29, traveled overland for three months from Venezuela to reach Texas in September, and then came to New York City. He said he was fleeing the government and hunger in his home country. He had an order telling him to report to the ICE office that day, but he had been turned away.

“I thought they were going to attend to me today,” he said. “We don’t just want to live, we want to finish the process quickly.”

The documents in Mr. Perez-Trompetero’s hands instructed him to ask an ICE deportation officer in his final destination to enroll him in an alternative to detention program. It was one of the first steps in a process that may take years.

(Brittany Kriegstein and Karen Zraick contributed reporting.)

Originally published in The New York Times on November 3, 2022 

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