Houston immigration attorney John Nechman used to wear a suit to work practically every day because he was always in court. But things drastically changed about a year and a half ago, when all of his removal cases scheduled to be heard in Houston's downtown immigration court were reset to the same ten-day span in November 2019. Now he practically never has to go to court. He says it's like that for every immigration attorney in town.
"It's bizarre," Nechman said in an interview. "There are waiting rooms [in the downtown court] with no people. I don't even know if the judges are actually behind their doors. If you talk to any regular practitioner in immigration removal cases, this is just strange to all of us. I don't even have to take my car in for servicing like I used to. In the past, I'd be driving out to all the detention centers practically every day. Now, it’s once a week at most."
The immense backlog in Texas's immigration courts is certainly not new. In May last year, the Houston Chronicle reported that a large number of cases stemming from before 2014 were being reset to 2019. But the backlog problem appears to be getting worse, or, at best, remains stagnant. According to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which gathers data on immigration court proceedings, as of December 2015, Texas had the second-most pending immigration cases with nearly 77,000, trailing only California's 82,000. Since 2014, the state's backlog has increased 58 percent. The average projected wait total for each pending case in Houston is now nearly five years.
As immigration court continues to cluster almost all of the reset cases to the same short time span in 2019, it's becoming less clear when those court hearings will actually happen.
"There is no way that all cases currently scheduled for Nov. 29, 2019 could get heard on that date," Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at University of Texas School of Law, said in an email to the Houston Press. "It’s literally thousands in Houston and also in San Antonio. I think the courts had some hope that they would advance some of those hearings to an earlier date once things sorted out, but I think it’s actually just as likely that the hearing dates for many of those cases will get pushed back later than Nov. 29, 2019."
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Whenever these cases will ultimately be heard, it's disconcerting that Houston appears to be leading the way when it comes to immigration court dysfunction. According to TRAC, Houston has the most pending cases in Texas, and the third-most of any U.S. city, behind only New York and Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the defendants are left in limbo. While Nechman said that's not necessarily a bad thing for some people — particularly those with cases that are unlikely to win in court — the four-year wait is especially tough on the majority of his clients, many of whom are ineligible for work authorization while their cases remain pending. And if Nechman has a case he knows he would win, he's left without the opportunity to speed up the judicial process.
"If you’re going to make someone stay here for three years, they’re only going to become more ingrained in our society," Nechman said. "When you just turn right back around and start the deportation wheel again, then you’re uprooting and breaking up families. It’s not a good thing — there just aren’t enough judges and too many cases. It begs for a solution."
It is unclear when — and if — a solution will come. As of August, the case with the hearing date set furthest in the future was scheduled for December 4, 2019. It's probably only a matter of time until cases are bounced into the next decade.