WASHINGTON -- Mark Pongo, a 32-year-old immigrant from Ghana, was released from detention earlier this month after 16 months -- or about 487 days -- away from his U.S. citizen wife and friends, during which his case languished in courts with record-high backlogs.
"It was crazy. I was just waiting to get my case done with," Pongo said. "I was over it. I was just waiting."
The backlog of immigration cases is at an all-time high of 314,147, according to data up to the end of June 2012, released last week by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. That figure is up 5.6 percent this year and 20 percent since the end of the 2010 fiscal year, with the average wait time climbing to 526 days.
For those in immigrant detention, that means more time away from their families, friends and freedom, until they are eventually deported or given legal status to stay in the United States.
Parastoo Zahedi, Pongo's attorney, has been an immigration lawyer for 20 years. She said she can see the difference as wait times grow, with more people lined up outside the crowded courtrooms. She took on Pongo's case pro bono after it sat without movement for months when he and his wife could no longer afford another attorney. With representation -- which many detained immigrants do not have -- his case moved more quickly.
After being released, Pongo is waiting for work authorization and eventually hopes to become a soccer coach. Soccer was the reason he chose to overstay his visa and remain in the United States in the first place, he said -- he decided to stay and try out for teams when he should have gone back to Ghana. He was detained after three DUIs, but has since received counseling and given up alcohol, he said.
"They need to try to speed it up a little bit," Pongo said. "When some people go to court they come back and say they're going to get a decision, and the decision takes like three months. Some people have been in there waiting for a decision for a long time."
It could be worse. The biggest backlogs are in Los Angeles, where 52,053 cases were pending as of June 28, and New York City, with 43,780. Los Angeles also has the longest wait times at 755 days.
Still, the long delays in Virginia and Maryland, where Zahedi does most of her work, are damaging. There were 9,174 cases pending as of June 28 in Virginia, which also handles cases from the District of Columbia. In Maryland, 5,036 people were waiting for their cases to be resolved.
One of Zahedi's clients came from Iraq to apply for asylum, but was detained at the airport. She was eventually released on parole, but her individual hearing won't be until February 2013, Zahedi said. Another client, who was admitted to the country as a refugee in 2003, was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in June 2011 and had a final hearing in June 2012, when he was told he could stay.
"They need to do something, perhaps adding more judges to the courts," Zahedi said. "There are a limited number of judges. For Virginia, we don't have enough judges, and their calendars are full."
The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Worst: Arizona SB 1070
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)
Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>