Most migrants show up for Utah immigration court dates — contrary to Trump administration claims

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Jacqueline Zamora makes one of her regular runs to file paperwork for an attorney to Immigration Court in West Valley City on Jan. 25, 2019.

When the Trump administration recently issued a rule to allow indefinite detention of immigrant families, it repeated its assertion that the vast majority of such new arrivals vanish into the shadows and fail to show up for court hearings.

Data shows just the opposite is true at immigration court in Utah, and at similar venues around the nation.

In the Utah cases opened since 2016, 83.5% of immigrants who were once detained but later released have appeared at all their immigration court hearings — 1,569 of 1,879 cases.

Other migrants have even higher appearance rates in Utah. People who were never detained appeared at 86.2% of their hearings. Those who continued to be confined, not surprisingly, appeared at 99.9% of theirs.

That is according to an analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune of court data gathered by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. It mirrors national findings reported by TRAC and the American Immigration Council.

“The vast, vast majority here are showing up,” says Utah immigration attorney Mark Alvarez. “In fact, I’m surprised when somebody fails to appear.”

A big reason for that is that immigrants face an extreme, automatic penalty for failure to appear: “They are ordered removed in absentia,” explains Utah immigration attorney Leonor Perretta.

Once that happens, immigration officials “will then track them down and physically remove them. They lose their ability to apply for asylum or other relief from removal. And it carries penalties for other applications they may file in the future, bars reentry and subjects them to reinstatement of removal if they enter the country illegally in the future,” she says.

In short, Alvarez adds, people who avoid court “essentially forfeit any possibility … of normalizing or legalizing their situation in the future.”

Alvarez says another reason the vast majority show up is that most have lived here for years and have developed close relationships with family who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

With that, he says some procedures are available as “an alternative to removal that allows the immigration judge to either grant the person residence or set the person back on a path toward residence.” That hope keeps many in court.

Alvarez and Perretta say they always tell their clients that it is wiser to show up in court than to try to hide.

“It’s a terrible time to live in the shadows, difficult to work and difficult to avoid detection — especially with children who have to attend school,” Perretta said.

Alvarez adds, “It would be unethical for us to advise someone to avoid appearing in court.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mark Alvarez takes to the podium as he joins Latino activists and families gathered at the Utah Capitol on Nov. 21, 2014 for a news conference to talk about President Obama's immigration executive order.

With the dire automatic penalties for not appearing, attorneys said most who miss court appointments do it only by accident.

“I have had many clients who missed hearings because the hearing notices were sent to an incorrect address, sometime due to typos,” Perretta said — but they were still ordered to be deported. Sometimes clients had notified immigration enforcement officials about address changes, not realizing that immigration court uses a separate database.

“We have also seen people go to the wrong courtroom. There are three in Salt Lake City,” Perretta said. They “wait until the end when they are the last person, and the judge asks about them and it is discovered they had a hearing in one of the other courtrooms — and that judge had ordered them deported.”

Judges may overturn orders for removal in absentia for “extraordinary circumstances.”

Despite such data showing most immigrants are showing up for hearings, the Trump administration has contended that is not the case — and used it to justify allowing indefinite detention, for example.

Also, Vice President Mike Pence has said in interviews that 90% of released families fail to appear. That came after acting Homeland Security Secretary Keven McAleenan told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June that 90% of families in a sample of 7,000 cases being fast-tracked failed to appear.

Critics note the administration uses data based on completed cases, and does not include data about those still moving through court. So for recent immigrants whose cases are completed, that would include all those decided in absentia for missing a hearing but not the many more cases that are still pending and proceeding.

“The administration manipulates number to justify its agenda, rather than analyzing the data in a fair and comprehensive manger,” Perretta said.