By Briana Vannozzi
In New Jersey, it’s not uncommon for immigration cases to take up to three years to come to trial, partly due to the limited number of judges and partly because of the time it takes to build a case. But that’s changing.
“We saw the expedited docket start a couple of weeks ago. There were 18 families who were scheduled to appear,” said American Friends Service Committee Legal Services Director Elissa Steglich.
Steglich’s non-profit, American Friends Service Committee, has represented hundreds of people going before immigration judges. Under the new federal program targeting refugees seeking asylum, initial appearances are held within a month. That comes with its own set of problems.
“Because we have a system that does not provide appointed counsel,” she said.
Steglich says finding legal representation — and the cash to pay for it — is nearly impossible given the time frame. Brian O’Neill, an immigration attorney in Morristown, understands the government’s rationale — separating those who desperately need relief from the rest. But says it’s not a fundamentally fair hearing.
“There’s just no way in three or four months particularly given the chaotic conditions, the semi-failed state status of a lot of the places these people are coming from that you’re going to have a case ready for trial during that period,” he said.
According to the Department of Justice, out of the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the border in the last year, about 1,800 came to New Jersey, many with a relative or sponsor, seeking relief from grave, violent conditions.
The process of seeking asylum can be pretty daunting. There’s a 10-page form that has to be filled out showing how an immigrant’s race or religion has made them a victim of persecution. And proving that case can be even more difficult.
“There’s effectively no or very minimal police protection in these Central American countries from that type of violence. So the expectation that again we here in the U.S. would have, ‘Oh why don’t you have police reports?’ or ‘Why didn’t you turn to the police?’ well when you’re living in a neighborhood where you know that the police are working and totally corrupted by the local gang that’s effectively running the whole neighborhood of course you don’t go to the police,” said Steglich.
“This is a refugee crisis and our government is not looking at it as a refugee crisis. This is an issue quite frankly that had it been addressed in a very different way many years ago, would not have really arisen,” said Casa de Esperanza Executive Director Joyce Antila Phipps.
The next round of hearings on the docket is scheduled for court in Newark on Sept. 11.