SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Carin, a 39-year-old subsistence farmer from Honduras, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her two sons late last year. They had fled after her political organizing led to threats of violence, she said, and intended to claim asylum.
They were released on one condition: that they show up to immigration court when called.
Carin said she made sure to check the mailbox regularly at the apartment in Colorado where they were living. In February, the first official letter arrived.
It was not a court-hearing notice. It was a deportation order.
“I said, ‘Oh my God’ and just cried and cried and then my sons were crying because we were all so scared,” Carin said. She asked that her family’s surname not be used for fear of damaging their asylum claim.
Clerical errors and lack of notice are common in the U.S. immigration court system, say immigration lawyers and former judges. Clerks are juggling a backlog of more than 900,000 cases and rely on numerous people to log information based on quick interviews at the border.
For migrants, such problems can bring dire consequences: A missed hearing can lead to an “in absentia” deportation order, issued by a judge when a migrant fails to appear.
Especially vulnerable are recently arrived families like Carin’s who are listed on the fast-track deportation docket, known colloquially as the “rocket docket.” The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency targeted about 2,000 people on this docket for arrest and deportation in recent operations, although only 18 family members were actually taken into custody.
Carin said she learned only after hiring a lawyer that her case file had errors. Court documents, which were reviewed by Reuters, indicated that she had been served with the court-hearing notice a day before the notice was even issued - an impossibility. Regardless, she said, she never received any notice.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which adjudicates immigration cases, declined to comment.
President Donald Trump’s administration has said that immigrants are abusing the asylum process to enter the U.S. and then skip court proceedings, allowing many to live indefinitely in the country.
“The overwhelming majority of claims are rejected by the courts, but by that time, the alien has usually long since disappeared into our country,” Trump said in a speech last November. “They don’t care because they’re in the country and nobody knows where they are.”
Striving to speed up the cases and deportations of recently arrived families, most of them from Central America, the administration created the family-unit “rocket docket” last year in 10 U.S. immigration courts.
Of the about 64,000 cases filed on the docket, about 17,000 have been completed. Of those completed, more than 13,000 resulted in an in absentia removal order, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Joseph Edlow told lawmakers on Thursday.
Federal officials repeatedly have said that people with removal orders have had their chance at a day in court. But migrant attorneys and advocates say that is not always true.
For instance, two families were brought to the ICE family detention center in Dilley, Texas, last week after being arrested by immigration agents, according to Katy Murdza, advocacy manager at the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which provides legal services to detained families. Both families said they did not receive notice of their court hearings and neither knew they had removal orders, Murdza said.
In the Hamptons on Long Island in New York, a Central American mother who crossed the border in December returned to her relatives’ house last week to learn that ICE agents had come looking for her, her lawyer, Ben Simpson said.
After calling the immigration court, she found out she had been ordered removed in April because she hadn’t attended her hearing. But she had never received notice, Simpson said, adding that the woman had an appointment to check in with ICE later this month in New York City and had planned to attend. ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
Immigration attorneys have been scrambling to reopen cases in which notice was not properly served. As a result of the publicity around the recent ICE operations, migrant advocates said more people know now to check if they have a removal order and to find legal help. That could potentially add to delays the government was trying to avoid.
“There are so many points along the way where there can be typos, so many opportunities for human error, especially when you add the lack of language competency at the border,” said Rebecca Jamil, who was an immigration judge in San Francisco from 2016 to 2018. She said in her experience, the vast majority of people who missed a hearing did show up when given a second chance.
“People are not coming here to hide,” she said.
In 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama also expedited cases to deal with an influx of families from Central America seeking asylum.
In a 2018 study, two immigration advocacy groups - the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project and Catholic Legal Immigration Network - said they successfully challenged the in absentia orders of 44 of their 46 clients on the docket.
Among the reasons for the challenges: lack of notice and incorrect information provided by the government, as well as immigrants’ language barriers, severe trauma or disabilities, the groups wrote. This month, the organizations updated a guide for lawyers so that more can challenge the deportation orders in court.
The Trump administration ended the Obama-era case prioritization in January 2017, saying it did not produce significant results. Then officials brought back their own version in November.
The Obama-era family docket required the first hearings to be scheduled within a month of the charging document being filed. The same is true of current family-unit cases, according to guidance sent to immigration judges last year and seen by Reuters.
But now judges are under greater pressure tmsnrt.rs/2y9HUTB to move cases along quickly, and have less discretion to give people more time to receive a hearing notice, find an attorney or file a complicated asylum application.
Meanwhile, the acting director of ICE, Matthew Albence, told reporters on Tuesday that agents would continue to pursue not just the 2,000 people targeted in recent weeks, but any family with a removal order issued after the surge of migrants in 2014.
There are “tens of thousands” of such families, he said.
Carin’s attorney Laura Maggio has filed a motion to reopen her case based on the erroneous dates in the government’s documentation, which stalls her deportation. Carin carries a copy of that motion, along with all of the other paperwork she has received, everywhere she goes.
For now, Carin’s priority is making sure her sons Bryan, 13, and Alan, 12, stay in school.
“I tell them that Donald Trump didn’t create the United States, God did. And God gave us the support to get this far, and he has the final word on what happens to us next,” she said.
Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York. Additional reporting by Reade Levinson. Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson