Computer troubles bog down immigration courts

Computer glitches are bedeviling federal immigration courts in Georgia and across the nation, a problem that could delay deportation cases, keep people locked up longer and drive up costs for their detention at the expense of taxpayers, local immigration attorneys say.

At issue are problems afflicting the government’s computer case system. The bugs are preventing court clerks from accessing court records and entering new ones in the system. They are also blocking them from making audio recordings of hearings.

As a result, immigration attorneys say, people are having trouble getting information about their court cases. A lot is at stake. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the immigration court system had a backlog of 350,330 pending cases.

“It will not surprise me to learn that some individuals will miss their hearing date and get a deportation in absentia because they know of no other way to check the information,” said Carolina Antonini, an Atlanta immigration attorney who teaches at Georgia State University.

The Justice Department agency that oversees the court system — the Executive Office for Immigration Review — issued a prepared statement Wednesday calling the problem a “hardware failure.”

“Immigration courts are still operating on their normal schedule, but some cases may be continued while we continue to work through this issue,” said Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the office. “We are continuing to evaluate the problem and are hard at work to find a solution.”

Georgia has immigration courts in Atlanta and at the Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia. Immigrants facing expulsion are held at Stewart in Lumpkin or the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla. Private companies run both centers, which hold detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In December, the government was paying $61.85 per day per ICE detainee held at Stewart. That number was $45 at Irwin.

ICE issued a statement this week saying it has not had cases "adjourned due to these temporary system issues, and the issues have had no impact whatsoever on detention capacity or custody determinations, nor has ICE released any individual due to the issue."

Delaying deportation cases for those being held in detention would be “particularly egregious,” said Glenn Fogle, an Atlanta immigration attorney.

“This situation is absolutely crazy,” Fogle said in an email. “The clerks at the courts cannot access their systems and they are apparently unable to enter filings — they are just stamping them and putting them in a pile. We were told that this is going to result in a huge delay once they fix whatever the problem is with the system.”

Charles Kuck, also an Atlanta-area immigration attorney, pointed to Washington, saying “Congress continues to fiddle while Rome burns.”

“This is another example of paying no attention to the immigration service, not funding the system (and) causing interminable delays, both for those who should be able to stay and those who should be deported,” said Kuck, a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Dana Leigh Marks, a San Francisco-based immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, also criticized congressional funding for the court system.

“By denying resources to the immigration courts, the government and Congress have been pennywise and pound foolish,” she said. “We need state-of-the-art resources to keep this complicated court system functioning in an appropriate fashion that serves the public in a timely and fair manner, and this has not been done.”

Last fiscal year, the Executive Office for Immigration Review dealt with a $15.2 million budget cut through sequestration, a hiring freeze and reduced spending for travel and training, federal records show. But the office’s fiscal 2014 budget is up 8 percent — for a total of $312.2 million — from last fiscal year’s spending plan.

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