ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - Suzan stood before Immigration Judge John M. Bryant, asking for more time in her deportation case, which was already more than a few years old.
The El Salvadoran transgender woman, who prefers not to be identified by her real name, came to the United States 20 years ago as a teenager, fleeing persecution. She was detained at the border.
Deportation proceedings never caught up with her — for a while, she was homeless and living on the streets — until about six years ago, when she was at a nightclub where a fight broke out. She was not charged, but police told her story to immigration officials.
"They were about to deport her. When [Suzan's] boyfriend called me and said, 'Look, we've got this situation,' " we filed a motion to reopen her case, Suzan's lawyer, Xavier Racine, told VOA.
Suzan has since married her American boyfriend and is asking for time to file for 212(h) waiver (a kind of pardon) on the ground that if she is deported to her home country, she faces a grave risk of death or persecution.
Bryant heard the update and gave Suzan a new court date. Her attorney has until February 2018 to file for the waiver.
This was one of 233 cases scheduled Tuesday at the court in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington.
In the hallway outside the courtrooms hang eight lists where respondents must search for their names to learn where their cases will be heard.
The courtrooms are plain — white painted walls, no windows, 10 wooden benches that can sit about 40 people total. No one is allowed to stand up; if there are no seats available, a respondent must wait outside.
The motions are fast-paced, each one settled in five to 10 minutes.
Because immigration cases are civil proceedings, undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation do not have a right to a rapid trial or a court-appointed lawyer. If immigrants cannot find pro bono representation, they are advised by the judges to hire a lawyer. Some pay for legal aid on retainer programs — paying a small amount monthly for cases that can last years.
In Arlington on Tuesday, judges were scheduling trial dates or status update hearings from 2018 to 2020.
The immigration data tracker TRAC reports the backlog in immigration cases has swelled to 632,000 nationally. In Arlington, the backlog is 36,099 cases.
Cost of delay
Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told VOA her organization has been critical of both former President Barack Obama's and President Donald Trump's immigration priorities. Under the Obama administration, the decision was made to shuffle dockets and prioritize families arriving from Central America, and unaccompanied minors in particular.
"We said, 'You are messing with what a judge does best: scheduling our cases and figuring out how to get cases ready for a hearing,' " Marks said.
The Trump administration has eliminated prosecutors' discretion to delay or dismiss cases that are considered low priority. In a January executive order, Trump directed that judges be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to speed up deportation there. But the policy has not reduced the backlog.
"Our point was if you want to prioritize border courts, there's nothing wrong with that, [but] you need to hire more judges to do it. If you take from one place to serve another, then there's going to be a backlog somewhere, and that's what happened," Marks said.
Delays can have negative effects, Marks said. "What do you do if something happened to that person's life, or the evidence becomes stale [and] it has to be done again? Their attorney could retire or become ill or no longer be able to take cases, and they may have to get a new attorney."
According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), there are 334 immigration judges in the United States. In August, EOIR swore in nine judges to fill positions in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Texas. Trump's fiscal 2018 budget called for hiring 75 more EOIR judges. But it takes two years to hire an immigration judge, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Land of ZAR
Asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, Republic of the Congo, and Trinidad and Tobago were among those appearing Tuesday in Arlington Immigration Court.
Immigration lawyer Lysandra Pachuta was there to represent a 16-year-old. Federal law gives immigration officers primary jurisdiction over asylum claims filed by unaccompanied minors, because it is less intimidating for a child to sit down and tell his or her story to an officer in a small setting than to present a case in a courtroom.
"And because of that, you will see a lot of unaccompanied minors in court … who usually, through their lawyers, tell their judge, 'We are planning to pursue asylum. We would like a continuance to go to ZAR,' " Pachuta said, using an abbreviation for the Arlington Asylum Office.
Bryant called the office the "Land of ZAR" as a way to make children less apprehensive. He was firm with his rulings but polite with the youths, asking how they were doing in school, wishing them "the best in life" and saying he hoped they'd get the "sweet judge and not the sour one" in the Land of ZAR.
Bryant dedicated the last two hours of the day to minors who were having their first hearings that day.
"You received a notice to bring your child today. … If you have [that notice] look at the nine-digit number. You just need the last three. … When I call you, come out with your child," he said.
The clerk began to call cases. About six children, elementary and middle school ages, were in the room, some with parents, others with legal guardians and attorneys.
An 8-year-old in a green dress stood up and sat in the respondent's chair. She was with her mother and her younger brother, who was dressed in a suit for their initial immigration hearing.
"Senorita Verde, how are you today?" Bryant said.
The second-grader replied that she was fine.
Bryant got an update on the children's case, gave them a new court date and wished the two a great school year.
The family left the court. They'll be back again in 2018.