A Day With A Charlotte Immigration Attorney Inside One Of The Nation’s Toughest Courts
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In the first floor lobby of the Charlotte Immigration Court, Jordan Forsythe met with her client on Thursday, Feb. 11. They step away to a seated area in the lobby. Forsythe wastes no time and goes over his case with him. She flips through a thick stack of papers listing everything about his case.
The man is a 34-year-old immigrant from Guatemala. We won’t share his name because he’s worried about repercussions in his legal case. It has been ongoing for two years, but this is only his second time in the building because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Above the man’s face mask, there is anxiety in his eyes. In a few minutes, a judge will decide his fate in the United States.
“I’m a little nervous because you never know what the judge’s orders will be," he says.
Forsythe, though, says she has "mucha esperanza" — she feels hopeful about his case.
“Being an immigration attorney in Charlotte feels like I am a soldier sometimes," she says. "I feel like I'm fighting on the front lines for my clients."
This particular client has spent the last two years trying to obtain a U -visa. It’s a special status given to immigrants who are victims of criminal activity and fully collaborate with police in the investigation. In his case, he was cornered by two men while taking the trash out in his apartment complex in Charlotte in 2019. They stabbed him in the stomach and stole $400 he had just earned from a construction job. It was his month’s rent.
“I didn’t want to (call police), but I had to because I was alone at home and there was no one else who could help me,” he says.
Forsythe says her client deserves a chance to get the U visa. She says he’s been here for seven years and is hardworking.
“He’s supporting his family by sending remittances to cover their basic needs and their medical, and it also allows them to stay in their home country and not come to the United States,” she says.
More than 29,000 immigrants living in the country illegally have received deportation orders in the area in the last 20 years. Most of them did not have legal representation, according to data out of Syracuse University.
The Charlotte Immigration Court is considered one of the toughest in the nation, and more than 80% of asylum cases end in deportation.
The Syracuse data also show a backlog of pending cases has steadily increased since the court opened in 2008.
The largest increase in pending cases came in 2017, when in just a year, the backlog nearly doubled to 11,500 cases.
Since then, the number has quadrupled to 45,368. The backlog created by the pandemic played a big role in its recent growth.
With this many cases pending, there is a growing need for legal help, but there’s a limited number of specialized immigration attorneys.
Currently, there are only 15 attorneys in Charlotte certified as legal specialists in immigration law by the Board of Legal Specialization of the North Carolina Bar Association. However, law firms in other cities also practice in the Charlotte area.
Forsythe’s office is currently handling 111 cases. Her oldest case has been active since 1998, a decade before the Charlotte immigration court opened.
The United States’ immigration system is cumbersome. Add in continuous changes in immigration policy and the complexity of a case, and deportation defense can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $15,000. But an immigration attorney’s preparation and knowledge are invaluable when facing an immigration judge.
Forsythe even learned Spanish so she doesn’t have to lean on interpreters when meeting with her clients.
Back at the immigration court, the attorney and her client chat as they wait. It’s been an hour and a half since their scheduled hearing. They head to the cafeteria for lunch.
Over a jerk chicken lunch platter and orange soda, they catch up on what Forsythe'sclient has been up to. He mentions wanting to start his own construction business if he has a chance to stay. She also uses this time to ask her client how he’s feeling and to answer any last-minute questions he may have about the case.
“At this point, I’m putting everything in God’s hands," he says. "Whether I’m meant to stay or leave, it’s entirely up to him."
At around 3 p.m., the group scheduled before Forsythe and her client enters the cafeteria and lets her know it’s her turn. Forsythe and her client rush to the elevator, and they ride up to the third floor.
There’s a security checkpoint before entering the court. Even though all immigration court hearings are public, the security officers say the judge won’t let media in because of COVID-19 safety. Forsythe and her client head into the courtroom.
After 20 minutes, Forsythe exits the courtroom. She’s grinning. Her client follows right behind and has a look of relief behind his face mask.
In a court where 80% of asylum cases end in deportation, he dodged a similar fate this time around.
"We have submitted a request to the government for prosecutorial discretion, and we’re gonna use that time to try to get the case closed," she says.
The judge gave them until April 5 to return with another argument for her client to stay. It's a small victory for a case out of one of the toughest immigration courts in the United States.