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Court Keeps Asylum Seekers in Limbo

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Chicago's federal immigration court is backed up with a record 8,696 cases. The average wait for a hearing is more than a year. Some immigrants don't mind, since the backlog buys them time here. But it's hard on asylum seekers. And it has consequences on other parts of the justice system.

Makouangou Serge, 39, rolls up a leg of his pants to show me some of his scars.

MAKOUANGOU: J'etais capture, j'etais tortue parce que j'etais dans un parti...

Makouangou says he helped run an opposition party in the Republic of Congo. He says troops detained him in 1997, held him without trial for more than two years, and tortured him with knives and guns.

Makouangou says he negotiated his way onto a flight out of the country in 2000. He landed in Chicago a day later and filed for asylum.

MAKOUANGOU: Bon, pour moi, quand j'ai demande l'asile politique...

Makouangou says he thought his case was open and shut. But bureaucratic snafus dragged it out.

In 2008, the federal immigration court in Chicago finally scheduled his asylum hearing. He'd have to hold on, though, for two more years.

PALUMBO: That's a long time to wait.

Makouangou's lawyer is Lisa Palumbo of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. She says long delays for asylum applicants are the norm. They have to put off decisions like buying a home and accepting a job out of state. Palumbo points out that many can't get work authorization or student financial aid.

PALUMBO: And then the stress it takes to be ready to prepare a case. It just continues and continues. Is it going to change again? Am I going to get to court in 2010 and they're going to tell me, ‘Sorry, we have to continue your case to 2012'? It's that constant sense that you're not finished yet.

The Chicago immigration court handles Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Since 2006, its case backlog has almost doubled.

It's part of a nationwide immigration-court backlog that's reached 228,421 cases. The figures come from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University.

Here's what's causing the logjam: The government has added more agents and prosecutors to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants. But it hasn't added enough judges to hear the cases. At the Chicago court, the number of judges since 2006 has actually dropped from eight to five.

MARKS: It's penny wise and pound foolish.

Judge Dana Leigh Marks serves in San Francisco and heads the National Association of Immigration Judges. Marks says the backlog puts pressure on other parts of the justice system.

MARKS: When the immigration judges are operating at light speed to try to adjudicate an overwhelming caseload, people sometimes feel that they haven't been able to fully express themselves. When people don't feel that they have had their day in court, they pursue appeals that they might otherwise not pursue.

The backlog has another effect. It's harder for immigrants to get legal representation. Few pro-bono attorneys want a case that could drag on for years. In Chicago, the National Immigrant Justice Center's Ashley Huebner recruits these lawyers for asylum applicants.

HUEBNER: Individuals who apply for asylum without an attorney are much less likely to actually get asylum. Eventually this leads to someone not winning asylum and potentially getting deported back to the country where they were persecuted.

The Justice Department says it's tackling the backlog and the long waits by filling judge vacancies.

That plan isn't enough for Mike Hethmon.

HETHMON: Adding new immigration judges is simply going to be triage.

Hethmon is general counsel of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a pro-enforcement group.

HETHMON: The demand to immigrate to the United States worldwide is simply overwhelming.

He blames the backlog on a policy that allows U.S. residents to bring family members into the country.

Ambi: Makouangou and Palumbo.

That's what Makouangou Serge hopes to do.

MAKOUANGOU: Pour moi, c'etais vraiment d'estress et quand je vois mes enfants...

Makouangou says he had to leave four kids with relatives before fleeing the Republic of Congo. He worries about their safety but cannot apply for them to enter the United States. Not, that is, until an immigration judge rules on his asylum request. That hearing isn't for another five months.

Music Button: Tommy T, "East-West Express", from the CD The Prester John Sessions, (Easy Star)

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