Im­mi­grants fac­ing steep odds in court

Thou­sands await fate in de­ten­tion cen­ter court 130 miles from Austin.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Philip Jankowski pjankowski@states­man.com

A Cen­tral Texas PEARSALL — welder named Jorge Lozada-Castillo sat in a small court­room hold­ing head­phones to his ears as he lis­tened to the Span­ish trans­la­tion of a judge’s de­ci­sion.

No, the judge de­cided, he wouldn’t be granted bail. Loza

da-Castillo’s two con­vic­tions for driv­ing while in­tox­i­cated made him a dan­ger to the pub­lic and a flight risk.

No, he wouldn’t be al­lowed a last-ditch chance to for­mally wed his com­mon-law wife, a Lock­hart woman who is the mother of his 5-year-old autis­tic son. He would be sent back to Mex­ico, de­spite the hard­ship it would cause his fam­ily.

“I’m sorry to hear about your son, but that is not go­ing to af­fect my de­ci­sion,” said Judge R. Reid McKee in the hear­ing late last month.

The en­tire pro­ceed­ing took about 10 min­utes, and, by the time it ended, Lozada-Castillo had agreed to leave the coun­try of his own ac­cord by Tues­day or face forced de­por­ta­tion.

This small 20-by-30-foot court-

room, set be­hind two locked steel doors in­side an im­mi­grant de­ten­tion cen­ter in Pearsall, 130 miles south­west of Austin, is on the front line of the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s ef­forts to de­port each year more than 250,000 peo­ple liv­ing in the U.S. il­le­gally. Lozada-Castillo’s hear­ing was just one of thou­sands that hap­pen ev­ery week, many of which oc­cur out­side of the pub­lic’s view in de­ten­tion cen­ters across the na­tion.

And with stepped-up en­force­ment ex­pected un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ap­proach to im­mi­gra­tion vi­o­la­tions, Cen­tral Texas and the rest of the state will likely see an in­crease in ac­tiv­ity by im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­der Pa­trol of­fi­cers.

Pearsall im­mi­gra­tion court

Austin has al­ready seen U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agents con­duct­ing more high-pro­file op­er­a­tions in the re­gion, in­clud­ing the court­house ar­rest of a Mex­i­can cit­i­zen March 3 and an ICE raid that swept up 51 peo­ple sus­pected of be­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally.

ICE agents have ap­peared em­bold­ened since Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive order Jan. 27 that gave the agency far wider lat­i­tude on whom it de­tains. In Austin, more than half of the peo­ple swept up last month in Op­er­a­tion Cross Check were found to be non­crim­i­nals, in­clud­ing some whom the agency wasn’t even seek­ing. Many of them have been de­ported since then.

Nearly all of the 683 peo­ple rounded up in the na­tion­wide op­er­a­tion will even­tu­ally end up at a hear­ing like Lozada-Castillo did.

These lit­tle-known courts con­duct hear­ings for im­mi­grants ev­ery day — and they take place largely out of view. At the de­ten­tion cen­ter where Lozada-Castillo’s hear­ing was held, four judges, all hired by the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment, de­cide who gets to stay and who is de­ported.

Lozada-Castillo’s hear­ing took place at the South Texas De­ten­tion Com­plex, a sprawl­ing pris­on­like fa­cil­ity that holds most of the im­mi­grants de­tained in the Austin-San An­to­nio area who are ac­cused of be­ing in the U.S. il­le­gally.

The 1,904-bed fa­cil­ity is com­monly known as the Pearsall Unit, named af­ter the city of about 9,600 res­i­dents along In­ter­state 35 where it is lo­cated.

Of the 57 im­mi­gra­tion courts across the U.S., the Pearsall im­mi­gra­tion court is the sev­enth-busiest, ac­cord­ing to data from the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice for Im­mi­gra­tion Re­view. Pearsall had just over 10,000 hear­ings in 2015 — more than im­mi­gra­tion courts in Hous­ton and Dal­las — and was sec­ond only to San An­to­nio among the eight im­mi­gra­tion courts in Texas.

About 284,000 new cases were filed across those courts in 2015, and the num­ber of new cases has topped 300,000 sev­eral times in re­cent years. Seventy-two per­cent of the peo­ple who go be­fore the courts for pos­si­ble re­moval are de­ported, ac­cord­ing to five years of data track­ing 761,000 cases.

Cases like Lozada-Castillo’s are typ­i­cal for the courts. Of­ten, a judge will hold an ini­tial hear­ing for sev­eral peo­ple at once that, with­out a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing the im­mi­grants, might last only two min­utes. De­spite their brevity, those hear­ings de­cide whether the “re­spon­dent” should be de­ported.

In Lozada-Castillo’s case, he sat with two other men seated be­side him. All three wore head­phones to hear the rapid trans­la­tion from the court’s in­ter­preter.

“It’s con­fus­ing,” im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney Edna Yang said. “If you are not rep­re­sented (by a lawyer) or don’t know what is go­ing on, you might ac­cept de­por­ta­tion be­cause you don’t know what else to do.”

‘Deck is stacked against you’

Im­mi­grants who go be­fore the court aren’t guar­an­teed a lawyer, un­like cit­i­zens and im­mi­grants in crim­i­nal court. Yang, a staff at­tor­ney for Amer­i­can Gate­ways, said she be­lieves a large ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who come be­fore the court aren’t rep­re­sented by lawyers.

Ag­gre­gate data aren’t avail­able, but re­search from a Syra­cuse Univer­sity group sug­gests that Yang is cor­rect. In Oc­to­ber, the univer­sity’s Trans­ac­tional Records Ac­cess Clear­ing­house re­leased a re­port an­a­lyz­ing 38,000 cases on the im­mi­gra­tion courts’ “rocket docket” for adults with chil­dren and found that 70 per­cent ap­peared be­fore the court with­out an at­tor­ney to rep­re­sent them.

Those un­rep­re­sented im­mi­grants filed pa­per­work seek­ing re­lief from de­por­ta­tion through asy­lum and other means at a far lower rate than im­mi­grants with lawyers, 6.5 per­cent, the anal­y­sis found. About 95 per­cent of those who re­ceived de­por­ta­tion or­ders at their ini­tial ap­pear­ance — like Lozada-Castillo — didn’t have an at­tor­ney.

Hav­ing an at­tor­ney im­proves the odds for those seek­ing to avoid de­por­ta­tion, but it’s not a guar­an­tee. In Texas, roughly three-quar­ters of those with at­tor­neys were still or­dered de­ported, the TRAC data shows.

“The deck is stacked against you,” said Bob Libal, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of lo­cal ad­vo­cacy group Grass­roots Lead­er­ship, which op­poses the de­ten­tion of im­mi­grants who are liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally.

“The vast ma­jor­ity are not rep­re­sented and they are fight­ing for their lives in a lan­guage that is not their own in a le­gal sys­tem that is not fa­mil­iar.”

Non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions like Amer­i­can Gate­ways of­fer free le­gal ser­vices for some im­mi­grants in the de­por­ta­tion process. They also con­nect im­mi­grants to at­tor­neys avail­able for lit­tle or no cost. And at Pearsall, im­mi­grants are given work­sheets that show or­ga­ni­za­tions that might as­sist them in le­gal mat­ters.

How­ever, be­cause de­por­ta­tion hear­ings are not crim­i­nal charges, re­spon­dents do not have the same right to an at­tor­ney.

The judge’s de­ci­sion to de­port a per­son or not is based on sev­eral pieces of cri­te­ria. Hav­ing chil­dren who are U.S. cit­i­zens is one fac­tor that judges look at; an­other is how long a per­son has been in coun­try con­tin­u­ously.

Many im­mi­grants will also seek asy­lum in con­fi­den­tial hear­ings in which they have to prove their lives could be threat­ened if they are re­turned to their coun­try of ori­gin.

Asy­lum pleas have been de­nied at a greater clip in re­cent years. In 2016, 57 per­cent of re­quests were de­nied, ac­cord­ing to TRAC data, the high­est rate since 2005.

With­out le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the hur­dles are height­ened for im­mi­grants try­ing to prove they would be put in dan­ger if de­ported.

“It’s harder to com­mu­ni­cate to find those doc­u­ments while you’re be­hind bars,” Libal said.

BILLY CALZADA / SAN AN­TO­NIO EX­PRESS-NEWS

Lo­cated in Pearsall, 45 miles south­west of San An­to­nio, the South Texas De­ten­tion Com­plex holds most of the im­mi­grants de­tained in the Austin-San An­to­nio area who are ac­cused of be­ing in the U.S. il­le­gally.

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