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Houston Immigration Courts Reopen For Hearings, As Many Families Face Years-Long Delays

Immigration judges in Houston and other Texas cities are hearing cases again after they were on pause for more than a year due to the pandemic. As courts reopen, judges face a national immigration court backlog that has ballooned to 1.3 million cases, which has led to wait times that can span a decade.

Claudia and Francisco Méndez speak with their attorney about their immigration case that’s been pending for nearly 10 years in court.

Claudia and Francisco Méndez have been waiting to plead their immigration case for nearly 10 years.

The outcome of their case could separate them from their 12-year-old daughter, a United States citizen born with a birth defect called spina bifida.

When the Méndez family came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago, they overstayed their visa and built a life in Houston, like hundreds of thousands do, without authorization. Then their youngest daughter Emily was born, and they realized they had to fight for legal immigration status to protect her.

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“She has to have special treatment and care,” said Francisco Méndez, who explained that Emily uses a wheelchair, has undergone several surgeries and will always depend on a caretaker.

Claudia Méndez, who stays home to care for her, said as Emily gets older, “she’s going to grow mentally very little and physically, she’ll always require the attention equal to a small child.”

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They couldn't risk deportation, so they went to immigration attorney Elizabeth Mendoza to start their case within Houston’s immigration courts.

Almost a decade later, they're still waiting.

Their case has been delayed several times, including during the pandemic, which has taken an emotional toll on the family.

“(I feel) a lot of stress,” said Claudia Méndez. “We need to have legal status, more than anything, to be sure we won’t be separated from our daughter.”

The Méndez family’s daughter Emily was born with spina bifida and requires full-time care.

The Méndez family is one of thousands in Houston waiting years for their day in court, which has been further delayed by the pandemic. COVID-19 precautions paused all hearings in “non-detained” immigration courts, which are for people not actively detained by U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement.

Judges are now facing lengthy caseloads after courts reopened on July 6 in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso.

In Houston, courts are among the most backlogged in the country — with some 80,000 cases pending and an average wait time of more than three years, according to court information obtained by Syracuse University’s data research center TRAC.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said attorney Elizabeth Mendoza, who has many clients in addition to the Méndez family who are affected by the long wait times for immigration court.

She said these courts make life-altering decisions on who can and can't stay in the United States.

“You have some cases for people who are bad actors and their case needs to be resolved so they can be removed from the community so they're no longer posing a threat or a risk,” Mendoza said.

On the other hand, she said there are cases where there's a strong legal reason to allow the person to stay in the country legally — like with the Méndez family.

“Our immigration laws, passed by Congress — by the American people — afford these people an opportunity to have their day in court,” Mendoza said.

Immigration courts are making some changes to help move through cases faster.

For example, the non-detained Houston immigration courts have reopened with a new court — and plans for a second. Additionally, the number of Houston-area judges has more than doubled since early 2020.

“We had maybe less than a dozen judges,” Mendoza said. “Now we have around 30, so during the pandemic, Houston has not only opened two new courts, but we’ve received a lot of new judges to help deal with the backlog that Houston has.”

Houston immigration attorney Elizabeth Mendoza meets with clients about their delayed immigration case.

Mendoza said another way the courts could speed up the process would be to identify certain straightforward cases that wouldn’t take as much time, and separate them so they aren't in the same legal track as more complicated cases.

California-based immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks, who spoke as a member of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said courts urgently need more funding, better technology and, most importantly, autonomy.

“It has to be now, because we've seen just how badly the system can break down without someone who understands the dynamics of running a court system to allow us to prioritize the resources that we’re given and make sure they’re used in the proper way,” Marks said.

Immigration courts are currently run within the U.S. Department of Justice and are subject to the discretion of the executive branch.

“The best way to efficiently run the system is to have the judges be the ones that are making the decisions as to how to most effectively and efficiently run the courts system,” Marks said. “And that has not happened in the past because politically appointed bureaucrats have been the ones who make decisions more for political optics.”

Marks added that both the Trump and Obama administrations interfered with immigration judge’s dockets in a way that made courts less efficient.

During the Trump administration, the court backlog nearly tripled. Analysis by TRAC attributes this to an increase in new immigration cases, though interference with immigration court dockets and judges’ authority arguably slowed down the process further.

Marks said she's hopeful that legislation that’s currently being drafted — to create an independent court system — will bring the structural change needed to deal with the backlog and other problems.

In the meantime, the Méndez family will continue to wait. They have a hearing scheduled for January.

“We are a few of thousands or millions of families that are in the same situation and this emotionally impacts the social and cultural lives of all these families,” said Francisco Méndez. “This is the opportunity to be heard.”

Know-your-rights flyers at a Houston immigration law firm.

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