On a recent afternoon at the L.A. immigration courts, 10 children sat on wooden benches facing Judge Ashley Tabaddor. It was their first hearing and, though some came with a parent or guardian, none had an attorney. The youngest, a five-year-old girl, swung her head from the interpreter back to the judge, listening for instructions.
“Sí, sí,” the girl answered softly when asked if her name was read correctly. “Yes.”
The children were just the newest of more than 46,000 cases the L.A. courts are currently dealing with. L.A. has the largest share of pending immigration cases, making it the busiest jurisdiction in the country.
“L.A. courts in particular face an enormous number of cases, disproportionately so,” said Emily Ryo, professor of law at the University of Southern California.
Other federal judges hear about 500-600 cases a year, said Ryo. Immigration judges in L.A. hear three times as many, or up to 1,600 on average.
“That’s a huge disparity and you can imagine the sheer amount of work that goes into handling the number,” said Ryo.
That has led to an historic backlog of cases in the immigration court system nationwide. There are about 375,000 pending cases as of June this year, the highest it’s ever been, according to government enforcement data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
It’s also put a tremendous strain on judges.
“The stakes are enormous,” said Bruce Einhorn, a former federal immigration judge who served on the L.A. courts until 2007.
Einhorn said some of his toughest decisions were in asylum cases, which is what many of the unaccompanied children from Central America are expected to file.
“If we make a mistake, we may never see the person again and that person may be destroyed, killed," said Einhorn. "If we make a mistake and grant asylum to the wrong person, that person may be a liar and worse. So making these decisions is no small matter. It should be gut-wrenching. We should take each case seriously."
But it’s getting harder to do that. As the backlog grows, the time to bring a case to resolution is also getting longer. A typical case in L.A. takes about 820 days to finish, or almost 2.5 years, according to TRAC data. Nationally, the average is about 590 days.
"There has to be some finality to these cases," said Patricia Corrales, a former government prosecutor with the Department of Homeland Security. "Good or bad, right or wrong, however you feel about these cases, there has to be finality."
All parties — the person facing deportation, the immigration attorney and the government — are frustrated by the delay, she said.
Without parents and without representation
Legal advocates have also criticized the lack of representation for children in the courts. Of the 7,729 juvenile cases currently in the L.A. courts, just under half, or 3,516, face proceedings without a lawyer, according to TRAC data. (Unlike criminal cases, immigration courts are considered administrative hearings and attorneys are encouraged, but not guaranteed.) In July, advocates filed a lawsuit to force the government to provide legal representation for children in deportation hearings.
The federal government has taken steps to address some of the problems.
The agency that oversees the immigration courts, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, is currently reviewing applications for up to 15 temporary immigration judges, according to Kathryn Mattingly, from the EOIR’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. It’s also currently in the hiring process for 32 additional immigration judges and has requested funds for more, according to Mattingly. The agency has also speeded up the cases of children in special “priority dockets” in several cities, including Los Angeles.
Broader reform may depend on congressional action. Lawmakers left for their August recess without coming to an agreement on President Obama's $3.7 billion request for funds to respond to the surge of child migrants.
Though the rise of child migrants has drawn attention to the immigration courts, the problems have been around for years, experts say. Still, what happens in L.A. could have a ripple effect.
"The immigration court here serves an example for what’s about to come," said law professor Emily Ryo of USC. "The kind of process we set in place here and the kind of reform we put in place -- the effect will have amplified consequences.”
This story is part of a series looking into the immigration court system in Los Angeles, the busiest in the country. Burdened by a massive backlog of cases and long wait times, the courts play a key role in deciding the fate of thousands of immigrants.