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7 Investigates: Growing caseloads plague federal immigration courts, letting many remain in the country

By Cody Lillich, KLTV

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Washington, January 24, 2017 | comments

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - The death of an East Texas girl in November raised questions over the procedure of the 'immigration hold' process that is supposed to keep people who are not in the country legally in jail until a court hearing can be scheduled.

In the case of Gustavo Zavala-Garcia, the man arrested in the capital murder of Kayla Gomez Orozco, he had a pending immigration case at the time of his 2016 arrest.

The "immigration holds" are placed on suspects by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement on persons who are believed to be in the country illegally. Zavala-Garcia's first immigration hold stemmed from a 2014 arrest in Smith County on a charge of assault family violence.

Once the hold is placed, it becomes one of thousands of pending cases in the Department of Justice's Executive Office of Immigration Review. Numbers collected by the University of Syracuse show the number of pending cases in immigration courts is on the rise in Texas and across the country.

Dallas-area attorney Ann Badmus specializes in immigration law and has experience in the Dallas court and the growing backlog.

"It's always been a long wait time for anyone in deportation or 'removal court' as we call it," Badmus said. "But recently probably in the past three to four years in the Obama administration, we've seen more delays because there have been more people going through the system."

In the case of Zavala-Garcia, he served his time in the Smith County Jail, but since the federal case was still pending in the Dallas immigration court, Zavala-Garcia was able to remain in the country pending his hearing.

"It's out of our hands," Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said. "And that's happened quite frequently. In fact most of them depending on what the criminal offense is most of them at least under this current administration get a PR bond [personal recognizance] and are told to show up at some later point. The majority of which don't show up. Some do."

The backlog and growing delay many say is due to a staffing problem in the federal court that is not keeping pace with the number of cases.

"I think it's a general consensus that it's not [properly staffed] and probably any immigration court is probably not adequately staffed considering the numbers," Badmus said. "I think overall there needs to be a general overhaul of the immigration system. Everybody has differing opinions of what needs to be done but certainly I think right now it needs a good hard look by Congress."

East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert agrees an overhaul of the immigration system is needed and said the situation with Zavala-Garcia should have never happened.

"It is totally unacceptable you ought to be able to have a hearing in 60 days, 90 days at most and immediately deport if that's the order but if not you move forward," Gohmert said. "But I don't think people ought to be released if they're caught coming in illegally -- have the hearing immediately."

Gohmert said he believes if the court in Dallas would have acted efficiently, possibly with the deportation of Zavala-Garcia, the death of Kayla Gomez Orozco may have been prevented.

"He's only charged he hasn't been convicted yet," Gohmert said. "But certainly she'd be alive today if the federal government had done its job... the executive branch had done its job of deporting people and enforcing the border so he wouldn't be back."

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith disagrees, saying more than just the courts would need to change to prevent something like what happened to Kayla.

"Deportation means nothing if all you have to do is walk back across and come across the river," Smith said.

In response to the backlog in immigration courts, the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review released the following statement:

The Executive Office for Immigration Review’s (EOIR) total pending caseload is more than 500,000.

As of Jan. 1, 2017, there were 292 immigration judges in 58 immigration courts nationwide. EOIR recognizes that to reduce the pending caseload and wait times for those in proceedings, the agency must continue its hiring initiative to increase the size of its immigration judge corps.  EOIR is authorized 374 immigration judge positions, and the agency is steadily climbing closer to that number, thereby augmenting adjudicatory capacity.

EOIR currently has more than 50 immigration judge candidates at various stages of the hiring process.  If EOIR receives the additional 25 immigration judges referenced in the House Appropriations Committee Bill, EOIR will be authorized 399 immigration judge positions. Since the start of fiscal year 2016, EOIR has brought aboard 61 immigration judges.

Zavala-Garcia is in the Smith County Jail charged with capital murder in the death of Kayla Gomez-Orozco. He is awaiting indictment on that charge before a trial date can be set.

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