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."