On Friday, BPR News aired the story of a young woman living in Western North Carolina who fled violence in El Salvador as a teenager. This week she faces possible deportation.
Her case is affected by new Justice Department policies aiming to clear a backlog of asylum cases across the country.
Rihanna, as she wishes to be called for her safety, arrived at the US border in 2014 as an unaccompanied minor. She says her father was killed by the gang MS-13 and her mother forced her out of their home.
“Fui abandonada por mi madre, y no tengo papa, y ninguna familia que me apoye.”
“I was abandoned by my mother, and I don’t have a dad, no family to support me,” Rihanna said.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Service granted her Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, because she met one of the criteria -- abandonment. She went to live in custody with an aunt in Maryland. But even there, Rihanna says, MS-13 was able to track down her location. That’s why we’re protecting her identity. The FBI says the gang is also active in North Carolina.
In the time since Rihanna moved to Western North Carolina in 2016, recent changes in the immigration courts have impacted her case. She was on track to apply for a green card, but now she faces the possibility of being sent back to El Salvador.
Those shifts began in 2017, when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions started enforcing policies aimed to more quickly deport individuals seeking asylum.
“It’s difficult to assess how effective the policy has been at this point because the really crucial issue is the average length of time that these cases have been pending,” Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge said. He’s also a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.
Sessions eliminated a provision that allowed judges to put immigration cases on hold until they were ready to be resolved. Now, instead of allowing those cases to be pending or resolved, they’re being routed for deportation.
Arthur says the aim of these mandates is to alleviate the strain on immigration judges, who are under resourced. The national backlog of pending cases has skyrocketed to about 890,000 across the country, and nearly 17,00 of those are in North Carolina.
In addition to the policy changes, the Justice Department under President Trump has added more than 128 immigration judges.
“And that really does get to the biggest issue which is these huge dockets, and the burnout that you get from doing cases constantly because there aren’t enough judges," Arthur said. "Both parties are in agreement that we need more immigration judges on the bench in order to handle these cases.”
That backlog continues to grow, as migrants continue to flee violence in Central America. Arrests at the border have risen 400 percent this year, compared to last year, according to Border Patrol statistics. And those arrests have a direct impact on immigration courts across the country, including North Carolina.
In response, the Justice Department under Pres. Trump has also been on a hiring spree, adding more than 128 immigration judges since 2017.
The latest figures show judges are actually spending more time on cases, 95 days on average, compared to last year. But denial rates are increasing. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse which tracks immigration judges’ records says 65 percent of asylum cases were denied in 2018, the highest since it started recording judges in 2001.
That’s likely due to yet another change -- quotas. Last Oct., the DOJ established a quota for judges to clear at least 700 cases a year to get a “satisfactory” rating on their performance evaluations.
The judge overseeing Rihanna’s case Wednesday has steadily increased the number of denials on his docket. Judge Stuart Couch denied 92 percent of asylum claims last year, according to TRAC’s data. That’s significantly higher than the national rate of 58 percent.
The union that represents the nation’s immigration judges has spoken publicly against the quotas. The National Association of Immigration Judges says the new system threatens judicial independence and due process.
“They’re moving human beings like cattle,” George Pappas, the attorney representing Rihanna said. “One of the horrible consequences is my client’s experience, where she has a right now to apply for legal permanent residency, and she’s being denied that right simply because judges at the behest of the White House want to clear their docket.”
Rihanna was successful in her appeal to the immigration board. She’s now reached her filing date with the USCIS, which means she is eligible to apply for a green card. But the Judge on Wednesday could deny her request to terminate the case and order her deportation.