Seventeen people facing deportation crowded into Courtroom 2 of the Fort Snelling Immigration Court one morning in May, waiting for Judge Monte G. Miller to call their names. An Ecuadorian baby whimpered; a Nicaraguan boy dozed on his mother's shoulder.
When it was Marta Amuma's turn, the judge noted that the Ethiopian woman's case had been open "coming up on six years now."
Amuma said through an Oromo interpreter that she was seeking asylum but couldn't afford a lawyer. "Today, my hope was to be free from all the worries," she told Miller.
"I understand your concern," the judge replied. "But the U.S. government is asking me to … send you back to your home country."
Amuma is part of a record backlog of more than 23,000 pending immigration cases in Minnesota and 2.1 million nationwide. Federal immigration courts are jammed, scrambling to keep up as migrants cross the borders in ever-increasing numbers. Judges — in short supply — must decide whether those charged with violating immigration laws should be allowed to stay under asylum, status adjustments or other types of relief.
In Minnesota, just six immigration judges work through a deluge of cases. Lawyers are so overbooked they're declining new clients. Some immigrants who have languished in the system for years feel rushed through hearings once they get their day in court.
That day in May was Amuma's first time in the courtroom after a series of postponements, but all Miller could do was refer her to a list of free attorneys and tell her to return in September. He suggested it would be faster for her sister, a citizen, to petition for a green card on Amuma's behalf.
With thousands of cases in the pipeline, Miller added, "if you're going to wait for asylum, you might not get a hearing until 2025."
Slow grind made harder
Glimpses into the Fort Snelling Immigration Court show how delays can weaken cases.
A 21-year-old El Salvadoran man named Carlos was always going to have a slim chance of winning asylum, but the slow grind of the court made it even harder.
Carlos, who did not want his surname published to protect his family, said he came here in 2017 after refusing to join a gang in his home country. The asylum application he filed the following year claimed he feared retaliation after gangs murdered one relative and wounded another. He later amended it to add that he was also a target because of police officers in his family.
The Fort Snelling court denies asylum applications 69% of the time, and cases from El Salvador are notoriously hard to win because many migrants have fled general gang violence and poverty. Immigrants can only meet the legal standards of asylum if they prove that they suffered or fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or political beliefs.
The government attorney in Courtroom 1 was skeptical of Carlos on the witness stand this spring.
"And the last interaction you had was asking you to join the gang?" Immigration Customs and Enforcement counsel Luke Nelson asked through a Spanish interpreter.
"And did you refuse?"
Nelson questioned him about a threat letter sent to his uncle that claimed "they want to kill all of you. Is it fair to say that you would be included in 'all of you?' "
But Carlos' case had dragged on for so many years that conditions back home had radically improved. Nelson cited a New York Times article from the week before detailing how El Salvador's government had decimated gangs under a president who took office after Carlos fled.
"There's no reason he cannot … return to El Salvador into a major populated area, find a job and be successful," Nelson argued to Judge Brian Sardelli.
The judge denied Carlos asylum two weeks later.
"Even if it had been a stronger claim several years ago, now we have to address how the current administration is working with those gangs," attorney Daniel Calderon told the Star Tribune.
Still, he said, Carlos has no criminal history and is working. Trying to deport him is "not a good use of the government's strained resources," Calderon said.
Just 650 judges handle immigration cases throughout the country. The Biden administration requested money for 200 more judges this year; Congress funded half that.
At Fort Snelling's Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building, it takes an average of 861 days to process a case, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University — twice the time before COVID-19. Calderon sees many clients waiting as long as Carlos, some up to eight years.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, has developed several ways to reduce the backlog, such as encouraging the use of pre-hearing conferences, spokeswoman Gail Montenegrosaid. She wrote in an email that the agency is managing its caseload as efficiently as possible while maintaining due process.
Calderon said the delays force clients who have winnable claims to live for years in uncertainty, feeling unable to establish themselves and build new lives.
"But on the flip side," he said, "there are those cases that I just feel it's very, very difficult to win, and the longer they're here, the longer they have to seek alternatives" for permanent residence.
The backlog is so great that Calderon stopped taking new clients in May.
Maya, 25, appeared for the first time at the immigration court last month. The Mexican citizen said her grandfather, a convicted rapist, assaulted her and relatives threatened to hurt her two children if she didn't drop charges. Maya, who didn't want her last name published because of her immigration status, crossed the border with her kids in June 2022. She said she wants to apply for asylum, even if it may be hard to prove that a family dispute meets the legal standard of persecution.
"It's been difficult because all the lawyers that I contact, they have a really long list," Maya said in Spanish.
A packed day
Back in Courtroom 2, Miller worked his way through the docket, calling up a family with a whimpering 9-month-old baby.
The couple and their two children had traveled from Ecuador and crossed the border near El Paso, Texas, in January without legal papers, weeks after President Joe Biden met with their nation's president about reducing the surge of Ecuadorian migrants. The judge asked the father through a Spanish interpreter if he feared returning to his country, a requirement to apply for asylum and remain here.
"No," said the father.
"If you have no fear of returning," Miller replied, "you're going to be removed from the United States."
The family, staying in Minneapolis, didn't seem to have a winnable case. But in their first appearance in court, the judge had to tell them they could take time to find a lawyer and return in four months.
Miller called up a mother and son from Venezuela who crossed the border in Texas two years ago. He called up a Nicaraguan man who looked so young that the judge asked his age (26). Upon learning the man had driven some 200 miles from Pelican Rapids, Minn., Miller explained that he could appear for his hearings remotely.
"Do you want me to give you instructions on how to do that, or do you like driving 200 miles?" the judge asked.
But the man demurred in Spanish. He didn't have access to a computer.
In a nearby courtroom that morning, Henry Adolfo Arevalo Garcia of Faribault looked forward to finally learning the resolution of his asylum case. He had applied in 2015, alleging persecution by the government in his native Guatemala, and was the lead respondent in a case that included his wife and two sons; one of the sons had recently married, bought a house and had a baby.
Garcia and his attorney, Nadia Roife, walked out of the closed hearing after a few hours with grim news for the family, which had been waiting in the hallway. Judge Joseph Dierkes had denied them asylum after what Roife described as rushed hearings that didn't allow enough time to present a complicated case. Thousands of pages of government documents had arrived at the last minute from Guatemala, and Garcia said he paid $4,500 in translation and expert opinion fees.
"Because of the horrifying backlog, the judges and the judicial system are now under the gun to conclude cases, resolve them, get down to the bottom and move quickly," Roife told the Star Tribune. Garcia and his family, she said, got "stuck in this mill."
Roife said asylum claims can take 10 to 15 hours to fully present in court, but Garcia's case got five hours before a judge over several hearings. She lamented a recent push to keep hearings to two hours. The president of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Mirella Ceja-Orozco, said there's an unofficial policy now to keep hearings short at the Fort Snelling court.
"I feel disappointed that I was not given time to explain," Garcia said in Spanish.
He said he plans to appeal the decision with the Board of Immigration Appeals. But that system, too, faces a case backlog. His attorney expects that Garcia and his loved ones will be in limbo for at least another two years.
Staff photographer Elizabeth Flores contributed to this story.