MIAMI — When a Key West woman finally got her notice to appear in immigration court, she prepared for a grueling trek to Miami.
The Russian immigrant — a domestic violence victim who works as a scooter mechanic — took unpaid time off from work, hopped on a bus to Miami Beach, was picked up by a friend who let her stay overnight at her Broward home, and then ultimately took Uber from Hallandale Beach to Miami’s immigration court.
After an hour of waiting in line, she found out that the court date printed on her letter was fake. There was no hearing for her that day.
“I had a panic attack,” said the woman, whom the Miami Herald is not naming because of her immigration status and privacy concerns. “I zigzagged across half the state and it cost me a lot of money to get there. All for nothing.”
The woman’s odyssey across three counties, only to arrive at a courthouse that had no record of her case being scheduled — despite the date and time being printed on her mailed “notice to appear” from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services — is just one of hundreds of cases in South Florida and thousands across the country.
“People have been ordered to appear on national holidays, on weekends and even at midnight — when we all know immigration court isn’t operating,” said Tammy Fox-Isicoff, the woman’s attorney and board member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Her client was placed in deportation proceedings after her battered-spouse petition — an immigrant-visa benefit available to domestic-violence victims married to U.S. citizens — had been denied.
Justin Sweeney, an immigration attorney in Fresno, Calif., says other people have been issued nonexistent dates, such as Nov. 31, and that others have received dates that appear to be correct but, when the immigrants appear at court, they discover that their case wasn’t scheduled or that it was slated for a completely different date.
“They’re ‘dummy dates.’ That’s the term that gets thrown around,” Sweeney said. “It’s a serious problem nationwide.”
So why are made-up court dates getting issued in the first place by agencies like USCIS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement?
Immigration authorities send notices to people who have been denied residence or citizenship. But until June of last year, USCIS would send the notices without dates, because the function of putting the cases on the calendar was left for the local courts to do at a later time. The forms just said the time and place was “to be determined,” which often occurred years later.
The reason USCIS sends the notices is because it is the official charging document that makes a foreign national deportable. Immigration lawyers sued, saying notices without court dates and times are defective. Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling that in order for the government to claim that an immigrant is deportable, the notices have to list a date and place to appear in court.
In order to comply with the ruling, immigration officials began sending notices with a time and place — even if they were fake. The reason, lawyers say, is because having a notice with a date and place allows the government to stop immigrants from qualifying for deportation relief.
According to immigration law, a foreign national is eligible for relief from deportation if the person has lived in the U.S. for a period of 10 years prior to the receipt of the notice to appear. That’s why the date that’s printed on a notice to appear is important: If an immigrant gets a notice to appear that provides a date and time anytime before the 10 years are up, the government can claim that it’s enough to begin the process of deportation and stop the clock toward eligibility for deportation relief.
“It’s arbitrary,” Fox-Isicoff said. “This causes the line at the immigration court to be quite lengthy, as these individuals cannot find their case on the docket. They have no way of knowing without going to the immigration court if the date is real or not, spending extensive funds on counsel, and often traveling huge distances.”
Making it even more difficult is the fact that USCIS doesn’t communicate with the courthouses in real time when issuing the dates, so the courthouses don’t know to put it on the court calendar.
“It’s creating chaos, inside the courthouse and out. People are showing up to court and discovering that their date was fake, and clerks are being overwhelmed by the masses who aren’t even supposed to be there,” said Kelli Stump, an immigration attorney whose practice is based in Oklahoma City. “It’s basically a ploy to disqualify people from certain immigration relief in court, and perhaps even to spark waves of fear and anxiety.”
Immigrants who receive a notice to appear, or NTA, with a fake date have to wait for a follow-up notice from their respective immigration court to find out their actual hearing date — a process that can take several months: “I’m still waiting on my real court date,” the Key West woman said.
In an email, a USCIS spokesperson told the Herald that the agency “is unaware of any NTA issues.”
Stump: “I’ve seen where 100 people will show up to court and have the same date and then are told ‘you’re not having court today.’ That affects people who actually do have real court that day, because they can’t get through the lines. That was a big problem in Miami recently.”
In July, a South Florida woman was ordered deported while standing in a “never-ending” line that snaked around the courthouse, witnesses told the Miami Herald. The meandering lines have become a norm.
The woman had arrived at the courthouse at around 7 a.m. for an 8:30 hearing, but was still in line when the judge called her name.
“The judge told my colleague that his client was being ordered deported in absentia, knowing that she was outside in line,” said Karla Lamers, an immigration attorney who witnessed the incident. “My colleague was so upset. He tried to go down and get her but the judge said she was sorry and that it was too late.”
A request to speak with immigration judge Madeline Garcia, who ordered the woman deported, was not granted by the Department of Justice. Eduardo Canal, the deportee’s immigration attorney, confirmed the incident but refused an interview with the Herald.
“The consequences of the fake NTAs are huge,” Lamers said. “We have all been advising our clients to get to court at least an hour before it opens so that they are not risking being deported. It also brings up the point that people go through large lengths to make it to court. Some live hours away, others pay for people to bring them over here. Some have kids that are sick. Some parents have nowhere to leave them. At the same time, all this is also discouraging people from showing up to court. How can you blame them?”
But they must show up, Fox-Isicoff says, despite panic and anxiety: “I make my clients take time and location-stamped selfies in front of the courthouse, just to prove that they did show up in court. I know other people who have shown up at midnight to do the same thing, just in case. That’s how you have to treat immigration court.”
Some attorneys, however, are giving the government a “taste of their own medicine.”
“If I happen to get a client who gets an NTA with no date and time listed, I appeal it, and argue that it’s not a valid NTA per the Supreme Court ruling,” Sweeney said. “You gotta play the game.”