Utah’s immigration court has been stretched so thin since Judge Dustin Pead left in August to become a federal magistrate, several local attorneys say their pending cases have been pushed back well into 2014.
“I’ve never seen cases backed up so far,” Salt Lake City immigration attorney Tim Wheelwright said.
The state already ranks 10th in the country for backlogged immigration cases, with an average wait time of 543 days, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. California is the most backed up, with immigration cases pending in the system for an average of 681 days.
But of the 26 states that operate full-time immigration courts, Utah is the only one with just a single judge handling cases in person.
To help offset the strain on Immigration Judge William Nixon, the court is using video teleconferencing to help with the court calendar. But since most of the help is coming from judges based in the east, there have been problems due to two-hour time difference, an ability to provide documents in a timely manner as well as the burden of adding to other immigration judges’ existing caseloads.
Salt Lake City Immigration lawyer Aaron Tarin, for example, said he has a client who is still in Utah County Jail awaiting a bond hearing and that it’s possible he could still be there in February. The client, he said, is a legal permanent resident who has been in Utah for about 20 years and was picked up on an old criminal charge three weeks ago.
He has already advised the client that he won’t be out in time for Thanksgiving and will likely not spend Christmas with his family due to the clogged caseload.
“I think another judge is absolutely needed at this point,” Tarin said. “The strain is already tremendous on an immigration judge. Videoconferencing is just a band-aid.”
But extra help isn’t on the way any time soon.
Kathryn Mattingly, spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said there is a hiring freeze in the agency and that the only options for relief are continued video teleconferencing or possibly moving judges around.
“We constantly monitor our caseload and shift the resources to meet the needs in the most efficient manner possible,” she said.
In Utah, for fiscal year 2012, that caseload was at 1,116 pending immigration cases — ranking 26th in the country. In the entire country, there were 293,013 cases pending during that same period.
Tarin said extended delays for cases of those incarcerated tend to work in favor of federal prosecutors because clients locked up for long periods of time tend to “lose heart” and opt to be deported rather than stay in jail.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said her agency wouldn’t comment on the court situation in Salt Lake City and instead referred all questions to Mattingly’s office.
Mattingly said her office couldn’t comment on legal strategies used by the federal government.
Leonor Perretta, a West Jordan-based immigration lawyer, said the court seemed to be prioritizing cases of those detained in jail. Her theory: It costs taxpayers more money to keep them locked up. In fact, Nixon’s caseload — with the exception of one day a week — has been dedicated to detainees with pending immigration charges.
Under a federal contract with ICE, Utah County Jail charges $72.25 per day to house an inmate facing immigration violations and, on a daily average basis, there are 137 being held there.
Perretta was less critical of the current situation in the courthouse and said the videoconferencing has generally worked.
But she said there is still a need for a second judge to handle the caseload.
No relief yet from president’s actions
Deferred action • One area that was supposed to relieve the volume of cases on immigration courts was President Barack Obama’s deferred action for eligible people between the ages of 16 and 31 who were enrolled in school and didn’t have criminal records.
Using discretion • Last year’s prosecutorial discretion directive from the Obama administration that sought to prioritize deportations by focusing on criminals first was also supposed to provide relief. But according to available data, only 74 cases in the Utah court — 6.8 percent — have been closed due to prosecutorial discretion since the directive went into effect more than a year ago.
Waiting for a winner • On Friday, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services showed that more than 53,000 people had been approved for deferred action and there had been a total of 298,834 applicants for the policy to date. Applications had been sluggish as potential applicants awaited the results from the presidential election.