U.S. immigration court bench.

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Immigrant women and children seeking asylum through Charlotte’s immigration court are ordered to be deported at a much higher rate than the national average, according to a new report published in October by the Syracuse University TRAC Immigration Project.

For those without an attorney, the situation is totally hopeless. Of the immigrants who have appeared before the court without legal representation since 2014, 100 percent have been deported.

TRAC analyzed more than 38,000 immigration cases nationally since 2014 and found that cases involving adults with children were scheduled more quickly than other cases following a directive from President Barack Obama’s administration “in response to the sudden influx of these families that began during the summer of 2014.” This practice, called the “rocket docket,” has been criticized by national immigration law experts and attorneys as a possible violation of due process because the speed with which cases are decided doesn’t give the immigrants an opportunity to present their cases or access legal representation. Some cases are decided without the immigrant even being present for their hearing.

According to Jessica Yañez, an attorney with the Yañez Immigration Law firm in Greensboro and leader of the North Carolina chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Central American immigrants who appear before a judge are typically people who have presented themselves or have been apprehended at the border and make a request for asylum based upon their fear of persecution should they return to their home countries.

Asylum seekers must show that they have a “well-founded” fear of persecution based upon their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinions.

“These claims are typically based on gang violence or domestic violence,” Yañez said. “I think we are being reactive rather than proactive, as a country, because the conditions in these countries are ripe for widespread persecution. Until the heart of the issue is resolved in each of these countries, whether it be gang violence or domestic violence, we won’t see the number of asylum seekers slowing down.”

Volume and rates

The immigration court in Charlotte, which handles cases from both Carolinas, heard 6,100 cases involving women with children since 2014, including more than 2,300 in 2016, through September. Of those cases, more than 4,600 were without legal representation and none were granted asylum relief. Of the 1,466 cases where the families had legal representation, only 23 were granted asylum. The sheer volume of cases per year since 2014 peaked in 2016, with 2,364 cases already decided or on the docket through September.

Nationally, immigration courts heard more than 126,000 cases involving women and children since 2014. Of those cases 67,700 involved immigrants without legal representation. Judges granted asylum relief in just 95 of those cases. More than 2,000 of the 58,000 immigrants with attorneys were granted asylum. Texas led the nation in those cases, with 23,074, followed by California at 21,387 and Florida at 11,297.

North Carolina’s immigration court heard the seventh-highest number of cases in the nation.

Cases involving women and children without attorneys were also scheduled and decided much more quickly than those with legal representation. Immigrants were ordered deported at their first hearing in 43 percent of cases, and most cases were decided in less than 30 days. By contrast, the TRAC Project found that only 4.4 percent of cases where asylum seekers had representation were decided that quickly.

For all immigration cases, Charlotte judges ordered deportations 74 percent of the time, much higher than the national average of 48.5 percent.

Whether a Charlotte case was ordered for deportation also appears to, in part, hinge upon which judge heard the case.

Judge Barry J. Pettinato, appointed in 2009, denied almost 90 percent of the asylum cases he heard, ranking him in the top 40 judges nationally for denials from 2009-2014, the latest years for which data was available. The largest group of immigrants on whose cases Pettinato ruled were from Honduras, followed by China, Guatemala and Colombia.

Judge Theresa Holmes-Simmons denied 61 percent of asylum applications. Judge V. Stuart Crouch denied more than 75 percent of applications.

Daunting process

The process of simply filing an asylum application can be daunting for immigrants, especially those without a lawyer. The TRAC Project found that immigrants in only one out of 15 cases were able to file the proper paperwork to seek asylum or otherwise avoid being deported.

“For an asylum case, you need to fill out an application that’s 12 pages long and you need to prepare a detailed declaration, usually in your native language and then have it translated,” Yañez said.

“You also have to provide evidence in support of the claim and then prepare a brief of the case. Even among immigration attorneys, there are a lot who don’t handle asylum law because it’s one of most complex issues in our legal system. It’s extremely difficult for someone to do go through the asylum process without any knowledge of how the legal system works.”

Another stumbling block for immigrants, Yañez said, is a one-year time limit for filing for asylum. Immigrants are entitled to legal representation at their hearings, but they have to pay for that representation themselves.

Many aren’t yet authorized to work in the U.S. and have difficulty raising the money to pay for an attorney. If a judge denies an initial asylum application, the immigrant can file an appeal, which takes more time and costs more money.

Because the number of immigration attorneys remains limited, Yañez said, those in the Carolinas are working to teach lawyers at larger firms the intricacies of the asylum system, allowing more lawyers can perform more pro bono work.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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