Advertisement
  1. Archive

LOGJAM DEFERS CITIZEN STATUS

An immigration court in Orlando is packed, delaying legal status for many.

- Selonneur Samedi sat in a crowded courthouse waiting room, his documents tucked neatly in a folder on his lap.

He petitioned for political asylum in March 2006, shortly after arriving in Florida by boat from his home in St. Louis du Sud, Haiti.

But then the federal government closed the Bradenton immigration court where his case originated. Samedi's file was one of about 2,000 from Bradenton added to the more than 8,000 pending cases already on the Orlando docket.

For months, Samedi was stuck in bureaucratic limbo. Finally, he was notified to appear Wednesday before an Orlando judge.

His appearance lasted four minutes, just long enough for U.S. Immigration Judge Earle Wilson to schedule a hearing in February 2008, nearly two years after Samedi first applied to remain in America.

Such delays have become routine for hundreds of immigrants in the Tampa Bay area in the year since the Bradenton facility closed its doors, leaving Florida's west coast without an immigration court.

Two of the Orlando court's five judges retired and a third died, leaving just two judges to handle one of the heaviest caseloads in the country. The backlog is so large, judges schedule hearings for November 2008 and beyond.

Immigration officials say they're working to reduce the strain and plan to fill the judicial vacancies soon.

But local lawyers say that's not enough. With the federal government's increasing crackdown on illegal immigration and the booming population on the west coast of Florida, they say another court in the Tampa Bay area is sorely needed.

"It's awful," said John Ovink, Samedi's Tampa attorney. "I have clients who put their lives on hold because they don't know where they're going to be in a year. They don't want to get married. They don't want to start families. It's a bad situation."

- - -

Like other immigration courts, the one in Manatee County heard various kinds of cases. Illegal immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings appeared there, as did those awaiting approval of their application for legal status.

The building also included a 350-bed detention facility.

Manatee County allowed the federal government to use the downtown jail and office space for 10 years at $10-million per year. But in early 2006, officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contacted the county to cancel the contract because the facility no longer fit their needs.

The court closed June 9, 2006. The detention facility shut its doors 17 days later. Inmates were sent to the one facility reserved for immigrants in Florida: the Krome Detention Center in Miami, which critics say was already overcrowded.

Miami houses the state's only other immigration court. The Orlando court receives cases from as far away as Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

So, despite having the country's third-largest population of illegal immigrants behind California and Texas, according to a study done by the Pew Hispanic Center, Florida trails those states when it comes to facilities to accommodate that population.

California has six immigration courts, while Texas has four.

The Florida logjam not only causes a needless delay for immigrants seeking asylum, it allows people who are in America unlawfully to remain much longer than they should, said Dilip Patel, an Oldsmar immigration attorney who is chairman of the Central Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"If people need to be removed, why does it take them so long to remove them?" he asked. "Making them sit in the system, killing time, doesn't make any sense from an enforcement perspective."

The situation also creates transportation woes for attorneys and for immigrants who may lack drivers' licenses. Some make the hour-and-a-half trip from Tampa to only find that cases have been rescheduled at the last minute.

Patel traveled to Washington last week to meet with elected officials, including Rep. Kathy Castor and aides for Sens. Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson.

While several people showed interest in the idea of building a new immigration court in Tampa, there were no firm proposals, Patel said.

- - -

Susan Eastwood, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said her office is taking steps to relieve the pressure on the Orlando court.

Judge Earle Wilson was transferred last month to Orlando from Miami to fill one of the three vacancies. The two others are expected to be filled soon, and a new judge's position is being created, bringing the total to six, Eastwood said.

Relief won't come soon enough for Sandra Posadas, 23, who lives in Plant City.

She moved to the United States from Mexico and petitioned the Bradenton court for permanent residency after she married an American citizen.

But then her case was transferred to Orlando, where she had a court date in August 2006. Then it was delayed until February.

"I feel really bad,'' Posadas said in Spanish. "I can't do anything. We're not sure what's going to happen to me.''

She and her husband have two American-born sons, ages 4 and 2. She said the uncertainty of her situation has put a strain on all of them.

"I can't work. I don't have any status,'' Posadas said. "We just have to wait."

Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at cweimar@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement