Congressmen Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Peter King (R-Seaford), citing a massive backlog of pending immigration cases, are requesting that Long Island be the place for a new immigration court.
In a letter to James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Mr. Zeldin and Mr. King referred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) budget request for fiscal year 2019, which included a commitment to open 75 new immigration courtrooms to reduce the backlog of pending cases.
“Pending cases contribute to associated gang violence on Long Island as gang members target youth like [unaccompanied alien children],” the letter stated.
The congressmen cited statistics collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data research organization at Syracuse University, which listed Suffolk and Nassau counties in the “top 10” nationwide for pending cases before the immigration court.
In data collected as of December 2017, TRAC breaks data down by town, showing 698 pending cases in Riverhead, 292 in Southold and 11 on Shelter Island.
Sister Margaret Smyth and East End immigration attorney Christopher Worth are familiar with the trip to Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan for the immigration court there.
“The immediate reaction is it’s closer, which helps people,” Sister Margaret said of the idea for a more local immigration court.
She’s accompanied people to the Manhattan court both as a character witness and as moral support, and has had to leave the Riverhead area early — once on a 4:30 a.m. bus, another time on a 6 a.m. train — to make it to court on time.
Mr. Worth said establishing additional immigration courts and judges would be a reasonable fix to the case backlog.
He agreed with Sister Margaret that, from a practical standpoint, a Long Island court would be better for people in deportation proceedings, but said that if a court is placed on Long Island, there should also be ICE holding centers.
“If there is a push to create a court on Long Island somewhere, it should be accompanied with a push to create more local bed space because you can have situations where there’s a denial of access to counsel when it’s impossible to meet with your client,” he said.
Following ICE’s “Operation Keep Safe” last month — a six-day roundup of 225 people in New York City, Long Island and the Hudson Valley, for violating immigration laws — Mr. Worth headed to a court in Texas to appear for his client, Elmer Erazo, who has lived in Flanders for more than 10 years and was among those arrested. Of the 225 people arrested, 180 had been convicted on prior charges or had charges pending.
Mr. Erazo’s arrest was likely based on a 2014 DWI, Mr. Worth said. The hearing last week was for the charge of entering the country “without inspection,” he said.
The Flanders man was first held in Bergen County, New Jersey, then sent to a holding center in New Mexico, then another, because there were no ICE detainee beds on Long Island or closer. Mr. Worth said he could have appeared by phone, but it was an important hearing, he said.
Some people are frustrated with the slow-moving docket, he said. Sister Margaret said she recently accompanied someone to the Manhattan court whose hearing was scheduled for 2019. They waited in the master calendar room at Federal Plaza to be given a specific hearing date.
“There’s nothing but lines of people,” Sister Margaret said. “The people on the lines, they’re starting to move up to the middle of 2020.”
On the other hand, she and Mr. Worth both noted that rushing cases isn’t ideal, either.
Litigants need time to gather evidence and ensure a full and fair proceeding, Mr. Worth said, adding that immigration cases are complex, and evidence to make a strong case is often being collected abroad.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently sent a memo to immigration judges announcing that they will be evaluated, in part, by how many cases they complete in a year. A “satisfactory” evaluation amounts to 700 completed cases, with fewer than 15 percent of decisions overturned on appeal, according to the memo, which has been circulated by national media outlets.
That’s worrisome, Mr. Worth said. “Setting quotas like that is a recipe for due process violations, because judges will feel under the gun to push cases along when maybe litigants didn’t have ample time to prepare their cases,” he said.