In a locked, guarded courtroom in a compound surrounded by razor wire, Immigration Judge Jerome Rothschild stalls. A Spanish interpreter is running late because of a flat tire. Rothschild tells the five immigrants before him that delay the proceedings before they start. “We are, untypically, without an interpreter,” Rothschild tells a lawyer who enters the courtroom at the Stewart Detention Center after driving from Atlanta, about 140 miles away. This is, in fact, a typical day in the chaotic, crowded and confusing U.S. immigration court system of which Rothschild’s courtroom is just one small outpost, the Associated Press reports. Shrouded in secrecy, the immigration courts run by the U.S. Department of Justice have been dysfunctional for years and have only become worse. A surge in the arrival of asylum seekers and the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration have pushed more people into deportation proceedings, swelling the court’s docket to 1 million cases.
“It is just a cumbersome, huge system, and yet administration upon administration comes in here and tries to use the system for their own purposes,” says Immigration Judge Amiena Khan in New York City, vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “And in every instance, the system doesn’t change on a dime, because you can’t turn the Titanic around.” AP visited immigration courts in 11 cities more than two dozen times during a 10-day period in late fall. In courts from Boston to San Diego, reporters observed scores of hearings that illustrated how crushing caseloads and shifting policies have landed the courts in unprecedented turmoil. Judges double- and triple-book hearings that can’t possibly be completed, leading to numerous cancellations. Immigrants get new court dates, but not for years. Many immigrants don’t know how to fill out forms, get records translated or present a case.