Immigration judge Paula Davis clicks through her morning docket of cases, a new one about every 10 minutes.
“The next date that I have is June 19 of 2017,” she tells an immigrant from India who is applying for asylum. “Not 2015, not 2016, but 2017.”
Davis — along with her crew of an interpreter, a clerk and an attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement — runs an efficient operation. But there are constant reminders of the heavy dockets. In many cases this week, follow-up hearing dates were set more than two years into the future.
It’s a situation that will be complicated further when Davis retires early this summer. For now, she is Kansas City’s sole immigration judge.
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The court she oversees determines immigrants’ destinies. Will asylum be granted? Do they qualify for legal status because of a relative’s legal status? Can someone legally remain in the country as a student or a spouse? Or will they be forced to leave the country?
The human drama plays out on the fifth floor of the Lathrop & Gage building near Crown Center. Three courtrooms stand available for the immigration proceedings. But there have never been three judges to fill them. There used to be two. Then former Jackson County circuit judge John O’Malley retired at the end of October. That left Davis, at least through May and June.
Kansas City’s situation is a microcosm of the nation: packed dockets with too many immigration cases to be heard by too few judges. About 240 judges serve in 59 federal immigration courts with some 411,000 immigration cases pending. The numbers have more than doubled in the last 10 years.
On Tuesday, Davis managed a wide range of situations. She warned one Mexican woman of the “serious immigration consequences” if the woman fails to appear at her next hearing. She could become ineligible for 10 years for any adjustment to a better legal status in the U.S.
She explained the next filing deadlines for applications to a Guatemalan. That woman, whose fear of torture if she is returned to her country was deemed to be credible by an asylum officer, has no attorney. It’s a common scenario in the courts.
For another case, Davis dialed up a Mandarin interpreter for a man from China. Once that case was done, she checked to see if there was another case on her docket that day from China so she wouldn’t have to dial up and swear in the interpreter twice.
Two judges from Salt Lake City have been visiting Kansas City during the past several weeks to shore up the workload left by O’Malley’s retirement. Such temporary fixes, visiting judges or judges hearing cases by video teleconference, could be put in place once Davis retires. But nothing has been officially announced, said Jonathan Willmoth.
Willmoth is the liaison to the Executive Office for Immigration Review for Missouri and Kansas through the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The office is part of the Department of Justice, under which the courts function.
The lack of judges can in part be attributed to a hiring freeze that had been in place and the government shutdown in 2013, Willmoth said. People have applied for the jobs, but they must be screened and trained before taking the bench. Most are career attorneys, appointed to the administrative posts and reporting to the attorney general.
Congress bears some blame, giving plenty of money to increase border agents but far fewer resources to the courts that must process the deportations. And President Barack Obama earned the mocking designation “deporter in chief” for ramping up deportations. All of it adds to backlogs.
Compared to other courts in the nation, Kansas City is in relatively good shape. There are nearly 4,000 cases pending here, according to federal data. In Texas that number is 71,000. And in California it is 81,000.
Kansas City’s immigration cases used to be heard by teleconference or by visiting judges from Chicago. The proceedings were done in a small room at the federal immigration office near Kansas City International Airport.
The courtrooms at Lathrop were established with O’Malley as the first judge in 2009. Soon cases from St. Louis were transferred to the Kansas City court, adding to the caseload. Davis, a former assistant chief counsel for ICE, joined the court soon afterward.
Two hours into her day Tuesday, Davis paused at one point to comment to an assistant: “Here it is 10:30 and we haven’t even seen who is out there.” Meaning the immigrants patiently waiting in the room outside her courtroom. She had been attending to cases that could be handled by conference calls.
In time, Davis would get to everyone who was waiting, giving each a hearing date or moving their cases before the government along. For most, at least a year, probably longer, will pass before a final decision is rendered on their efforts to live legally in the United States.