Families facing deportation not showing up for Immigration hearings

Digging deeper

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided some of the earliest coverage of federal dentention programs as a flood of unaccompanied children from Central America poured across the nation’s southwest border. Some of those children have wound up in Georgia upon release. Last month, staff writer Jeremy Redmon traveled to Texas to report on conditions at these detention camps. Those stories can be found on MyAJC.com.

Nine out of ten families who were apprehended amid a surge of illegal crossings on the Southwest border, released into alternative to detention programs and then ordered deported over the last year did not show up for their scheduled Immigration Court hearings, new federal figures analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

Immigration authorities — who are grappling with how to respond to waves of Central Americans fleeing poverty and gang violence in their native countries — said they don’t know why the families aren’t reporting for their required hearings. But they said they are searching for those who pose a threat to public safety and others who are considered top priorities.

Immigration watchdogs say the new statistics show the families should be detained. The government is now holding more than 2,000 of them in three detention centers located in South Texas and Pennsylvania. Critics say it is inhumane and psychologically harmful to detain families, especially crime victims who are seeking asylum in the United States.

There is a lot at stake in the debate for Georgia, which has fought for years to drive out immigrants living illegally within its borders. The AJC recently reported from South Texas that after detainees are released on bond from the detention there some of the Central American families are heading to Georgia, where they have relatives and friends. There were an estimated 400,000 immigrants of all ages living without legal status in Georgia in January 2012.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s Immigration Courts, recently released the figures to The AJC. The statistics, which cover July 18 of last year to June 30, show:

• Of the 12,785 families who were ordered deported — or “removed” — 11,492, or 90 percent, were ordered out of the country “in absentia,” meaning they did not show up for their court hearings. Those families were participating in programs that require them to routinely check-in with federal immigration authorities and wear electronic monitoring bracelets.

• In contrast, 169 — or 49 percent — of 344 other families who were detained for all or part of the past 12 months and who were ordered removed received deportation orders in absentia. They were ordered out of the country after they were released from detention centers on bond and then didn’t show up for their required court hearings.

• Only a small percentage of these families combined have been granted asylum or other forms of relief by Immigration Courts. The total so far: 304, or 2 percent, of the 14,411 case that have been initially completed. Meanwhile, nearly 30,000 Immigration Court cases involving families are still pending.

Under federal law, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, immigration judges can order people deported in absentia after it is proven they are removable and after determining they or their attorneys were properly informed of the times and places of their court proceedings.

Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies — a research group that advocates tighter immigration controls — said the statistics point to the need for “soft, family-appropriate detention.”

“These figures,” she said in an email, “illustrate why some kind of soft, family-appropriate detention is necessary to ensure that newly arrived illegal border crossers do not further violate the very generous due process that they have been offered by skipping out on their immigration hearings and joining the huge illegal population in the United States.”

Some families aren’t showing up for their hearings because their cases have been expedited, they can’t afford attorneys and because the nation’s pro bono legal providers are stretched too thin, said Beth Werlin, director of policy for the American Immigration Council, a Washington-based immigrant advocacy group. The council highlighted several court complaints from immigration attorneys that allege the government has given children short notices about their upcoming hearings and held hearings in states where they don’t live. EOIR, the federal agency that oversees the Immigration Courts, sent immigrant aid groups a letter this month, saying it had boosted training for its judges and was making other improvements.

Werlin also questioned whether families held in detention centers have a "fair opportunity to apply for asylum," given the limits they face in meeting with their attorneys and getting the evidence they need to present their cases. She also pointed to the cost of detaining families. For example, at total capacity at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, it costs taxpayers $313, on average, to house each detainee per day. In comparison, it costs between 30 cents and $14 a day for alternatives to detention, including routine check-ins with immigration authorities and electronic monitoring, according to a 2012 report by the National Immigration Forum.

“Detaining families,” Werlin said, “comes at such a high cost — financially for the United States, for the well-being of these families, and for their opportunities to actually apply for the protection that they so desperately need — that I think the solution can’t be we hold them because we need to make sure they appear for court.

“There are other measures that can be taken to ensure people are coming to their Immigration Court hearings,” she continued. “It starts with things as simple as making sure there is enough time and not scheduling the hearing at an unreasonable pace that makes it less likely they are going to appear.”

Last month — amid a federal lawsuit challenging the government’s family detention practices — U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced several measures aimed at shortening the time families are detained. He said “long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.” Some women and children have been detained for months in South Texas. Johnson added the government would support releasing — on bond — families who demonstrate a “credible or reasonable” fear of persecution in their home countries.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a statement to the AJC, saying alternative to detention programs help “prioritize detention space for those aliens who pose the greatest risk to public safety or pose the greatest risk of flight.” There were 24,772 people enrolled in those programs as of May 14, according to ICE.

“The ATD program,” ICE said, “has yielded positive results in improving accountability for aliens in the removal process, while helping the agency use detention space more efficiently.”