How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Longer immigration court wait times, with especially long waits in L.A.

Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse

The time it takes for immigration courts to decide cases continues to stretch, with average wait times getting longer by the year lately, according to a new report. And longest waits are in Los Angeles.

This is according to federal data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University in New York, which keeps tabs on federal enforcement spending.

According to the report released today, average immigration court wait times grew longer during the first six months of federal fiscal year 2011, which began last Oct. 1. During this time the average wait for an immigrant's case to be decided reached 302 days, a jump of 7.5 percent in the last six months and almost 30 percent higher than the average time it took in FY 2009.

Some courts have far worse backlogs than others. From the report:

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ICE deportations by the numbers

Photo by olongapowoodcraft/Flickr (Creative Commons)


The record deportations logged by the Obama administration continue on pace, with more people deported in fiscal year 2010 than ever before. This year promises similar numbers: ICE records through May 23 show that 243,821 people have been deported since last Oct. 1, the start of the 2011 fiscal year.

From an agency chart, the ICE removal numbers from recent years:

FY 2010 = 392,862

FY 2009 = 389,834

FY 2008 = 369,221

FY 2007 = 291,060

The average daily population of immigrants in detention rose slightly from 30,295 in FY 2007 to 33,366 in FY 2020, though the average length of stay - for most, the time they are held while awaiting deportation - has decreased.

Despite a federal push to deport more convicted criminals, according to agency stats, 197,090 of those deported in FY 2010 did not have a criminal record - a little more than half. But among those who did, what was it for? According to an Associated Press analysis, a growing number of people have been deported following traffic and DUI arrests. From a story today:

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In light of recent ICE memo, a primer on 'prosecutorial discretion'

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer prepares an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant for a deportation flight bound for San Salvador in Mesa, Arizona, December 2010

Last month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton issued a memo to the agency's employees urging the use of prosecutorial discretion in the cases of certain immigrants, among them people who grew up in the United States after arriving here as children, and those who have served the military and their families.

It's a directive that will be put to the test, as U.S.-raised young people continue to land in deportation proceedings. And just how it changes things remains a bit of a mystery.

For those who are unfamiliar with what prosecutorial discretion is and how it's exercised, the Immigration Policy Center recently updated its guide to understanding how it works in immigration law. Among the basics that are covered:

What is Prosecutorial Discretion?

“Prosecutorial discretion” is the authority of an agency or officer charged with enforcing a law to decide whether to enforce the law in a particular case. A law-enforcement officer who declines to pursue a case against a person has favorably exercised prosecutorial discretion.

The authority to exercise discretion in deciding when to prosecute and when not to prosecute has long been recognized as a critical part of U.S. law. The concept of prosecutorial discretion applies in civil, administrative, and criminal contexts. The Supreme Court has made it clear that “an agency’s decision not to prosecute or enforce, whether through civil or criminal process, is a decision generally committed to an agency’s absolute discretion.” Heckler v. Chaney 470 U.S. 821, 831 (1985).

When is Prosecutorial Discretion Used in Immigration Enforcement?

Prosecutorial discretion may be exercised at any stage of an immigration case. Specifically, prosecutorial discretion may be exercised when: deciding to issue a detainer; deciding to issue a Notice to Appear; focusing enforcement resources on particular violations or conduct; deciding whom to stop, question, or arrest; deciding whom to detain or to release on bond, supervision, or personal recognizance; seeking expedited removal or other removal by means other than a formal immigration court proceeding; settling or dismissing a proceeding; granting deferred action, parole, or staying a final order of removal; pursuing an appeal; executing a removal order; responding to or joining in a motion to reopen removal proceedings; and to consider joining in a motion to grant relief or an immigration benefit.

Examples of the favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion in the immigration context include a grant of deferred action; a decision to terminate removal proceedings; a stay of removal; or a decision not to issue a charging document in the first place.

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A long, costly and dangerous trip for migrants smuggled by sea

Photo by lowjumpingfrog/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Pangas, the fishing boats typically used by smugglers ferrying people up the coast from Baja California

The trend of undocumented immigrants being smuggled by sea up the California coast isn't entirely new, but the recent discovery of 15 people stranded on rugged Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Ventura County has brought the story farther north.

Where do these smuggling boats come from, and how do these operations work? Last year, before coming to work for KPCC, I went to a small Baja California fishing village north of Ensenada called Popotla to report on the maritime smuggling traffic coming out of there. It's a down-on-its-luck tourist town just south of Baja Studios, the oceanfront filming location where many of the scenes from “Titanic” were shot.

More recently, Popotla has become a preferred launching point for human smugglers ferrying people into Southern California. Human smugglers bring their charges down to the beach at night, loading them into small fishing vessels known as pangas. Popotla locals I spoke with knew about it, but looked the other way. Here's what one of them told me:

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With Dream Act a tough sell, ICE prosecutorial discretion memo will be put to test

Photo by olongapowoodcraft/Flickr (Creative Commons)


A recently reintroduced Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act received its first Senate hearing this morning, in a chamber packed with young undocumented immigrants who stand to benefit from a bill that proposes granting conditional legal status to young people who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, provided they attend college or join the military and meet other criteria.

There's no date set yet for a vote, and the Dream Act has historically been a tough sell. In the meantime, though, the Obama administration recently clarified its position on Dream Act-eligible immigrants and where they fall on the priority scale for deportation, which is low.

Earlier this month, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced planned reforms to its embattled Secure Communities enforcement program, among the memos released by the agency was one urging the use of prosecutorial discretion in the cases of certain immigrants when determining who should be detained or deported. Among these are undocumented immigrants who came as young children, have graduated from a U.S. high school, or who have pursued or are pursuing a college education. Those with military ties are on the list as well.

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