This sponsored column is by James Montana, Esq., the principal of Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Arlington, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact him for an appointment.
By James Montana, Esq.
In Cool Hand Luke, there’s a delightful scene in which new prisoners are introduced to prison discipline. The punishment for every infraction is the same: you spend a night in the box. There’s a laconic poetry to it.
Our immigration courts are very similar. The punishment for every infraction is an order of removal. An order of removal gives federal authorities the right to arrest, detain, and deport you, typically without further legal process.
If you don’t show up to immigration court, you get an order of removal.
If you get evicted and forget to notify the immigration court about your change of address, you get an order of removal.
If you can’t make your case persuasively in a foreign language without any legal education, you get an order of removal.
If you somehow manage to prepare an application for relief but forget to send a copy to the prosecutor as required by regulation, your application for relief will be rejected, and you’ll get an order of removal.
If you ask to leave the country voluntarily and don’t, for whatever reason — say, because you were hit by a truck — you get an order of removal.
And, sometimes, even if you do everything right, you’ll get an order of removal. Our immigration laws are harsh.
The Immigration Courts work this way for the same reason that the prison starvation in Cool Hand Luke does: poverty. There are roughly 300 Immigration Judges for the entire country. There are roughly 500,000 cases pending in immigration court, which equates to about 1600 cases per judge. If each judge ruled on one case per workday, and no new immigration cases were filed, it would take eight years to clear the docket. And that’s a utopian fantasy.
Increased enforcement means that more cases will be filed, and the backlog will grow. There is no right to counsel in immigration court, so most immigrants have to try to paste together their own applications. That slows things down.
At my first appearance in immigration court, the judge gave me a four-year delay before trial. I thought I must have misheard, so I squeaked, “Excuse me, your honor? You mean there are no trial dates available for four years?” A rumble of chuckling erupted from the other lawyers in the gallery.
The judges aren’t at fault for this, and neither are the prosecutors. Congress has starved the Immigration Courts of resources for years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
There’s no good news here, folks, except this: Having a lawyer more than doubles your chance of winning in immigration court. If you’re in immigration court, you need a lawyer right now. It might take you a half-decade to get out of immigration court, but at least you’ll get out without an order of removal stamped to your forehead. Maybe.