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130 miles from Austin, immigration court decides fate of thousands


Highlights

A court in Pearsall, 130 miles south of Austin, decides whether to deport thousands of immigrants each year.

The court is housed at a detention center that holds most immigrants detained in the Austin-San Antonio area.

Most people who go before the court show up without an attorney and are deported, data shows.

A Central Texas 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. Lozada-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 courtroom, set behind two locked steel doors inside an immigrant detention center in Pearsall, 45 miles southwest of San Antonio, 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 last week and an ICE raid that swept up 51 people suspected of being in the country illegally.

SPECIAL REPORT: Meet the immigrants arrested in Austin ICE raids

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.



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