Asylum Philadelphia: A look at the overburdened Philadelphia Immigration Court

Posted: January 12, 2011

IN JUNE 2006, men in military clothes grabbed Maria, kidnapping her as she slept in a church shelter in Angola, bound and blindfolded her and dragged her away. They beat and raped her, and interrogated her about her boyfriend's human-rights work. Maria eventually escaped to the United States, where she sought asylum. But more than four years went by before a judge in Philadelphia heard her testimony.

Separately in Philadelphia, "Esther," from Ghana, overstayed her tourist visa, fell in love with a naturalized U.S. citizen and married him in 2006. Then he turned abusive. "Esther" wants to stay here, and her attorney says that federal law permits it. But a backlog caused her hearing to be put off until Feb. 1, 2012, and now the matter appears headed out of the judicial system altogether.

These two cases provide a glimpse into the highly emotional issues often brought before the overburdened Philadelphia Immigration Court, where applicants can remain in limbo for years and where the number of cases pending before just three judges skyrocketed to 4,573 in fiscal year 2010 - a 20 percent increase from the previous year.

It was the court's highest number of pending cases since at least 1998, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-research center at Syracuse University - and possibly its highest number ever.

And it's not just traumatic for applicants. The judges themselves, because of the number and nature of the cases, "suffer from significant symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and more burnout" than prison wardens or physicians, according to a nationwide survey by the University of California, San Francisco.

Last month, immigration lawyer Steven Morley was added to the Philadelphia court as its fourth judge, and he is to begin hearing cases Tuesday. The judges aren't allowed to discuss their work, but observers wonder whether the extra staffing will be enough to bear the burden triggered in large part by the Department of Homeland Security.

"I'm not even sure the fourth judge is going to make much of a difference, because enforcement [by Homeland Security] is cranking up, is still running full-tilt," said James Orlow, a veteran immigration lawyer in Philadelphia and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Even with more judges being sworn in, immigration judges nationwide "are still in a crisis phase," said Judge Dana Marks, of San Francisco, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. New judges still have to go through training and don't take on full caseloads, she said.

Maria's day in court

Last month, more than four years after entering deportation proceedings in October 2006, Maria - who asked that only her first name be used for this article - finally testified before Judge Charles Honeyman.

Honeyman, like the other Philadelphia immigration judges - Miriam Mills and Rosalind Malloy - has been more likely to deny than to grant asylum, according to Syracuse's TRAC.

Summoning the horrible memory of the day she was kidnapped in Angola, in Africa's southwest, Maria told the judge that she had been dating a man who worked for a human-rights group.

"They tied me - my hands, my legs," she testified through a Portuguese interpreter. "They blindfolded me and took me to some location." During the four days that she was held captive, she was raped by several men and repeatedly beaten, she testified under questioning by her attorney, Troy J. Mattes, of Lancaster.

Maria, 32, said that she was allowed to leave after agreeing to poison members of her boyfriend's group. But after she was released, she told her boyfriend what happened and he helped her escape from Angola. Two months later, in August 2006, she applied for asylum in the United States.

Because of the high volume of cases in the court system and the time needed to locate, contact and get evidence from her former boyfriend, it took more than four years for her testimony to be heard.

Mattes, who began representing Maria in 2007, found out that Amnesty International had written about her former boyfriend. Through his efforts, Maria was able to phone the man and get him to send a letter that was introduced in court as evidence of their past relationship.

Ira Mazer, senior attorney in the Department of Homeland Security, cross-examined Maria on what appeared to be inconsistencies in her testimony. He questioned if the letter had been sent by her former boyfriend.

But Honeyman said that he found her credible, and the evidence that she had submitted "genuinely plausible," and he granted asylum. Sitting in the back of the courtroom, Maria cried. Afterward, she said she was happy.

Later, as Maria reflected on her case, she said that the hard part about waiting so long for a hearing was that she had to depend on others. "I can't work or anything," she said, speaking through a cousin who interpreted for her. "That's basically the downfall of that. I can't work, I can't study. I can't get any legal papers to do anything."

Her cousin said that Maria finally has received her legal papers to be in this country.

Mattes said that the case was unusual. The hardest part of asylum cases, he said, is to back them up with evidence. Fortunately for his client, she was dating someone known to Amnesty International. And, he said, she was a witness who "didn't flinch."

Stepped-up enforcement

Philadelphia Immigration Court is a cog in a vast network overseen by the Justice Department: 271 judges in 59 immigration courts located in 27 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, in the Pacific Ocean.

Two of those courts are in Pennsylvania - one in the federal building at 9th and Market streets, the other inside the York County Prison, in York, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of Homeland Security, houses detainees accused of violating immigration law. Philadelphia's court was relocated Sept. 1 from cramped quarters at 16th and Callowhill streets, where the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), another agency under Homeland Security, remains.

Judges decide whether foreign-born individuals whom Homeland Security charges with violating immigration law should be ordered removed from the U.S.

The Justice Department agency that oversees immigration judges was created in 1983, when the attorney general moved the judges from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Many immigration lawyers say that Homeland Security has been more aggressive in recent years in its enforcement, bringing cases before judges that previously wouldn't have been argued in court.

Some attribute the increased enforcement to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Obama administration also has made it a priority to deport "criminal aliens," noncitizens convicted of crimes in the U.S. It recently touted its fiscal year 2010's record-breaking number of deportations - more than 392,000.

Lawyer Dave Bennion, of the nonprofit Nationalities Service Center, in Philadelphia, said that what would have been routine cases a few years ago - such as a marriage to a U.S. citizen - now may be disputed in immigration court. Often in the past an immigration officer at USCIS would have determined whether to grant a green card, without the case having to go before a judge.

The stepped-up enforcement efforts by USCIS and ICE "have the result of increasing the backlogs in the courts," Bennion said.

Bennion said that he's "a little bit reluctant to endorse" hiring more judges, because it "doesn't address the underlying problems that lead people to continue to come to this country and employers to continue to hire them."

The case of 'Esther'

Ricky Palladino, the attorney representing "Esther," from Ghana, said that hers is an example of cases that shouldn't clog up immigration court.

Under the Violence Against Women Act, Esther, 32, is "immediately eligible" for a green card because she is the abused spouse of a U.S. citizen, he said.

He said that her marriage to her husband, also of Ghana, started off well but that he then lashed out about the "way she cooked, the way she cleaned," then began choking her. The abuse escalated to rape, the woman told Palladino.

Esther and her husband filed for a green card for her in 2008, but failed to show up for their interview with the USCIS immigration officer, so the application was denied. Homeland Security placed the woman in removal proceedings in February 2009, after the green-card denial.

At a hearing Dec. 13, Palladino told Judge Mills that USCIS had approved the woman's petition to be classified as an abused spouse. He explained afterward that the approval also meant that USCIS agreed that the woman's marriage was legitimate, not a sham.

The Homeland Security attorney, Bruce Dizengoff, told the judge that he needed time to review the case and contended that it was properly before the court.

Judge Mills sided with Palladino, referring to an August memo by ICE Director John Morton to have some cases returned to USCIS jurisdiction instead of remaining in the courts, in an effort to help unclog the courts.

She instructed Palladino to file a motion to terminate the case, and to let the government's attorney respond. Palladino last week told the Daily News that the ICE chief counsel in Philadelphia, Kent Frederick, has agreed that the woman's removal proceeding should be terminated. Palladino also last week filed a joint motion indicating that both sides agree.

Once the judge grants the motion, as she is expected to do, Esther's request for a green card will be heard by a USCIS immigration officer, instead of languishing in the backed-up immigration-court system.

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