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As Court Backlog Grows, Immigrant Children Stuck In A Holding Pattern

The number of pending immigration cases in Mecklenburg County increased by 34 percent the second half of last year — the largest county increase in the country. This data comes at a time when the backlog in immigration courts is the highest it’s ever been nationally.

The Charlotte immigration court is located on the fourth floor of an office building in the eastern part of the city, off Albemarle Road. Hector Campuzano is a paralegal advocate with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. He gets to the court around 7:30 a.m. most days, and sets up shop in a small room off of the court lobby

Credit Jessa O'Connor/ WFAE
Hector Campuzano is a paralegal advocate with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. He sets up in a small office off the immigration court lobby to help people who come to the court for the first time navigate the process.

His job is to offer help to first timers at the court — mainly immigrant minors facing deportation and their families — who don’t understand the process. Campuzano greets people when they get to court and checks them in on the day’s docket, and then lets the legal clerk inside the courtroom know how many people to expect. On that day, there were 43 cases on the court docket.

The Charlotte court is the only immigration court in the Carolinas. One woman that checked in with Campuzano drove her son to Charlotte from Durham that morning. One boy came with his cousin from Columbia, South Carolina.

The Charlotte court only has four judges, who are inundated with cases. The court ranks eleventhin the country in the highest number of pending cases. As of June, the Charlotte court has a backlogof 15,024 cases — 1,391 of those dealing with unaccompanied minors.

This follows the national trend, with pending cases totaling 733,365.

Judge Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said there’s a combination of factors contributing to the case backlog — chief among them is funding.

“For years and years and years, law enforcement would see their budget double, triple, quadruple,” Tabaddor said. “But the court would not be given the same amount of budget.”

Meaning more people are being apprehended at the border and filtered into the court system, and the number of judges can’t keep up.

Tabaddor said there are about 360 immigration judges, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans in June to hire 100 more this year. She said that’s not nearly enough.

“At a minimum, you’re going to need somewhere between 900 and 1,100 judges to be able to address this backlog,” Tabaddor said.

Credit National Association for Immigration Judges
Judge Ashley Tabbador is the president of the National Association for Immigration Judges.

She also said another important reason behind the backlog is the use of the court as a “political tool.”

“We constantly have our dockets being reshuffled based on different law enforcement priorities that each administration wants to send,” she said.

New policies constantly change the prioritization of cases — whose case is heard and when — rather than relying on a first come, first serve basis.

For the cases stuck in the backlog, the wait can be years. Court records show the average time for an unaccompanied minor’s case in Charlotte court is 806 days — more than two years. It’s important to note that cases involving children are more complicated because they can qualify for protection through other agencies that must be addressed before they go to court. But a lot of the wait does have to do with the backlog.

Natalie Delia-Deckard, a political sociologist from Davidson College, said that period of wait can have mental and physical consequences on these children.

“We have higher rates of depression. We have higher rates of behavioral problems both inside and outside of school,” Delia-Deckard said. “We have higher rates of attachment disorders.”

She said immigrant children are spending a significant portion of their childhood wondering if they face deportation, which puts them in a holding pattern.

“Goal-making becomes impossible,” Delia-Deckard said. “How do you look at what's supposed to happen in high school? How do you know how we're applying for colleges when you don’t know where you’ll be? And you have no control over that.”

Sil Ganzó is the director of the Our Bridge for Kids, a local organization that provides fun educational programming for immigrant children. A tour of the inside of the building showed bright-colored rooms with children’s’ artwork on the walls. Outside, there are soccer fields and an area filled with square planters.

Credit Jessa O'Connor/ WFAE
Immigrant children and their parents helped to plant a variety of vegetables that the families then pull from when needed.

“We have this garden that the kids built with their families,” Ganzó said, pointing to the planters. “Parents come in and take what they need, from tomatoes to cucumbers to squash.”

Whether it’s gardening with their parents, playing soccer with friends or going on field trips, Ganzó said it’s Our Bridge’s job to make the kids’ lives as fun as possible.

Credit Sil Ganzó
Sil Ganzó is the director of Our Bridge for Kids, a non-profit that helps refugee and immigrant children.

"While they're here, we cannot predict the future,” Ganzó said. “We don’t know if they’re going to stay. We don’t know if they’re going to be sent back. We don’t know if they’re going to live. We don’t know. But while they’re here, they’re going to have the best time ever.”

And no one knows what will ease the backlog. Whether it be more immigration judges or more funding, there isn’t a definitive solution.

Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.