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Immigrants Held in Detention for Months Without a Hearing: Lawsuit

Almost three-quarters of immigrant detainees have to wait more than two months to see a judge.

The federal government has been holding immigrant detainees in the New York area for months without a court hearing, a lawsuit filed on Thursday alleges.

Almost 75 percent of detained immigrants whose cases were heard at the Varick Street immigration court have had to wait over two months before their first appearance, according to Justice Department data that was analyzed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that filed the suit. About 33 percent of the detainees were detained for over three months before they get to see a judge.

“Waiting in detention will cost people their jobs. It will cost people their housing,” said Paige Austin, a staff attorney at the NYCLU who focuses on immigration issues. “There’s simply no reason to let cases run for months and months before a person sees a judge.”

Following an arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigrants in New York are shuttled to county jails and detention centers in New Jersey counties like Hudson and Bergen or counties in upstate New York like Orange or Genesee. There, they wait for a hearing with a judge to see if they will remain in detention or get granted bond.

The lawyers allege that these wait-times have ballooned under the Trump administration. They analyzed data from the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), an office of the Justice Department that oversees the country’s immigration courts. They found that in 2014, the median wait time for a detained immigrant to have a hearing at Varick Street was 11 days. By July 2018, it was 80 days. This is a stark difference to criminal court, where federal law says that inmates must receive a hearing before a judge within 48 hours of their arrest.

The median wait time incrementally rose between 2014 and March 2018, when it spiked from 44 days to 80 days in July. The plaintiffs in the suit say the problem stems from a growing number of ICE detentions, fewer releases by ICE prior to the first court date, and inadequate court resources. Enforcement in the city has gone up dramatically since Trump’s election. Arrests in the New York area spiked in fiscal year 2017 to 2,579 from 1,037 in 2016 and the backlog in immigration court in New York City has reached over 100,000 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. TRAC recently reported that the national backlog has surpassed 1 million cases.  

The legal teams that filed the case – Cardozo Law Immigration Justice Clinic, NYCLU, and The Bronx Defenders – argue that this wait time violates due process, the detainee’s 4th amendment rights, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

“People arrested by ICE and detained in criminal jails in New York and New Jersey are detained for months, simply waiting for a first hearing before a judge who can determine whether or not they should even be locked up,” said Jessica Kulig from the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo School of Law. “This practice violates the fundamental due process rights of more than a thousand people every year.”

Documented has contacted ICE and will update this story with the agency’s comments. EOIR declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Uriel Vazquez Perez is the petitioner-plaintiff on the case. The 43-year old father of two has been detained at the Orange County Correctional Facility since October 30 and has allegedly not yet seen a judge.

Update: This story was updated on Friday with comment from Executive Office of Immigration Review.

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