Monday, July 4, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Scheduling day at the Las Vegas Immigration Courthouse puts the problem in sharpest focus.
“Brenda Minola Ng,” Judge Roland Mullins calls out from the bench on this day, drawing out a blue manila folder stuffed with paper. For the next few minutes, he flips through the client’s docket, verifies facts and clicks around on a computer until he decides on what Brenda, an undocumented immigrant, and her husband — a legal permanent resident pursuing citizenship — had come to hear.
“Dec. 12, 2012,” he says.
Brenda Ng was one of more than a dozen undocumented immigrants facing deportation proceedings who came to the Las Vegas Immigration Courthouse last week to learn when they would next be required to show on the master calendar, which is buckling under the court’s most serious backlog on record. And it is poised to become even more unmanageable.
Nationwide, immigration courts, which are administrative courts under the Justice Department, have for the past few years faced a growing backlog of cases. It’s a problem tied to the stepped-up activities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Bush-era scandal surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ politically motivated hiring of new judges.
Nationally, the backlogs appear to be leveling off. But in Nevada, it’s taking off.
Las Vegas once had a three-judge bench, and from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2009, that bench was able to contend with yearly increases in undocumented immigrant apprehensions. But in 2009, Judge Irene Weiss retired, just as the Obama administration began to step up enforcement — a campaign that brought a 26 percent spike in cases.
It caused the docket to nearly double, from 1,144 cases in May 2009 to 2,093 in May 2010, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which collects data on various government agencies.
Las Vegas appeared to catch its breath a little over the past year, when the national Executive Office for Immigration Review transferred Judge Jeffrey Romig from its York County, Pa., office to Las Vegas.
From May 2010 to last May, despite an 11 percent increase in cases, the backlog increased just 15 percent, from 2,093 to 2,388; not bad for a court struggling to play catch-up.
“It takes time to work off a spike,” said Susan Long, a statistician and professor at Syracuse University, and co-director of TRAC, comparing Nevada’s backlog with states that have had to recover from vacancies on the bench. “If you’ve dug a hole, it takes a while to climb out of it.”
But then last month, Judge Harry Gastley retired.
“The backlog is going to be like three times more than before,” speculated immigration attorney Reza Athari, based on his experience representing immigrants. “Now, we get master calendars for next year.”
More troubling than the increase in the backlog that was posted over the past year — modest compared with what came the year before — is the increase in the average number of days it takes to process each case in Las Vegas.
In May 2009, that average time was 197 days, or about 6 1/2 months. In May 2010, even as the backlog doubled, the average time per case rose to 227 days, or about 7 1/2 months.
In May, it measured 278, almost 9 1/2 months — a full two months more than before even though the growth of the court’s backlog slowed. And that was before Gastley retired.
Longer wait times can mean more time for the immigration in question to stay in the U.S., or it can mean more time in detention.
Since February, federal immigration authorities have had a better way of handling detention cases: that's when they finalized a new contract with the city of Henderson to house apprehended immigrants awaiting processing in the Henderson City Jail.
Immigration lawyers say it's an improvement over the North Las Vegas facility that had been used as a detention center and never seemed to have enough space. The federal government pays cities to use their jails for immigration-related lockups.
“The majority of detained subjects are criminals, or mandatory detentions that are required by statute, like ICE fugitives,” said Steven Branch, field director with the agency, which processes immigrants before they are put into the court system, either through apprehension, or in cooperation with local police departments.
Those apprehended and taken to Henderson, Branch said, usually get bond hearings within two weeks, after which most return to their families, provided they show up for court dates.
But the increased number of apprehensions means more bond hearings, which mean more immigrants in the process get their cases punted down the road.
The immigration review office prohibits judges from speaking to the media. But lawyers who appear before Romig and Mullins say they think the judges are doing the best they can, although it’s not a pretty sight.
“If I’m frustrated, my mind doesn’t function the way it would when I’m not frustrated,” Athari said. “A judge cannot be ignorant to the facts of the case. But when the judge is frustrated by a gallery full of respondents sitting there, and their attorneys, obviously it would affect his ability to make proper decisions.”
The court is, for many immigrants, their last stop on the way home. Nationally, deportation rates have been on the rise; in Nevada, both acting judges deport more than 80 percent of those seeking asylum.
Las Vegas’ immigration isn’t a court like those Los Angeles or New York, where new cases top 20,000 annually, and where the backlogs were a country-leading 65,900 and 45,060, respectively, last month. About half the states are experiencing backlogs in their immigration courts.
In Las Vegas, the focus is smaller. The court — which sits in a strip mall off South Pecos Road — is in the same building as the area Homeland Security Department’s office, even though the two are unaffiliated, and immigration attorneys’ offices and even one medical facility to check on immigrants’ health dot the lot.
It can’t get much more streamlined, immigration attorneys say. But that’s why they argue the problem isn’t with the courts, it’s with the entire system.
Congress has been struggling with how to contend with the country’s undocumented immigrant population for decades. Since the last comprehensive immigration reform package passed in 1986, the population of immigrants has ballooned to estimates as high as 12 million, although recently those estimates have fallen, a sign that the recession has affected the market for off-the-books labor.
Lawmakers in Congress, mostly Democrats, have attempted to pass laws to grandfather some immigrants into the documented community; the one that came closest to passage being the Dream Act, which puts undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children on a pathway to citizenship, provided they enroll in college or the military, are of good moral character, and are under age 35.
But what’s gained more traction are efforts to enforce the laws on the books. That has translated into increased apprehensions, of both ordinary and especially criminal illegal immigrants, more deportations and higher backlogs.
The growing backlogs, advocates say, illustrate just how untenable the idea is that legal and enforcement action will solve the country’s immigration quandary, even at the levels it’s being pursued now.
“It doesn’t matter how many judges you hire,” Athari said. “As long as you keep deporting more people — and the Obama administration has surpassed any other administration before it — there’s no end to it.”
Sun reporter Conor Shine contributed to this story.