Oklahoma trails the national trend in clearing immigration cases
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2012
12/23/12 at 7:37 AM
While deportation orders are falling and backlogs in immigration courts are easing across the nation, U.S. policy reforms show modest to no change in Oklahoma.
Last year, President Barack Obama issued a directive for the U.S. Homeland Security Department to prioritize its enforcement of immigration laws to those posing the most danger.
Although criticized as a political move during an election year, the administration stated this was to reduce the growing court backlog and focus efforts on violent criminals.
About 1.4 million immigrants were deported during Obama's first 3 1/2 years in office, more than under any other president.
The change in priorities created a shift among agents, who had considered illegal residency enough for arrest. A group of 10 agents sued for the right to ignore the directive.
In addition, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals directive implemented in August allows immigrants brought into the U.S. as children who have no legal residency documents to apply for a two-year reprieve.
Eligibility mirrors aspects of the decade-old, pending congressional legislation known as the DREAM Act. This would give young, undocumented and law-abiding immigrants a chance to gain residency.
The policy directives are not a path to legal residency and leave the immigrant in legal limbo.
Statistics show the efforts are starting to improve overwhelmed courts but are increasing wait times for a case resolution.
The data comes from the University of Syracuse-based nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which uses the Freedom of Information Act to analyze cases.
The fiscal year 2013 figures are projected numbers based on quarterly or monthly trends.
The directives use the tool of prosecutorial discretion to close, but not dismiss, a case.
Immigrants qualifying for this are allowed to stay in the U.S. but are not granted legal status or given a way to gain residency. Their cases could be re-opened.
Nationally, the number of case closures using this option rose to 1,382 in October, up from 1,093 in September.
From April through October, the U.S. has closed 10,998 cases with discretion.
Of those, 26 were from Oklahoma.
Up and down
To seek a deportation, prosecutors from Homeland Security file an order for removal in an immigration court, which are administrative hearings within the U.S. Department of Justice.
Oklahoma is in the Dallas district, and hearings are held in Oklahoma City one week a month.
For fiscal year 2013, the projected number of hearings for immigrants held at the Tulsa Jail is 1,164, up from 716 the previous year.
However, the trend in hearings for nondetained Oklahoma immigrants is falling, from a high of 720 in 2010 to a projected 116 in 2013.
At the Tulsa Jail, 56 percent of immigrants are held for entering the country illegally and 4 percent are held on another immigrant charge.
The rest are in jail on a criminal charge or aggravated felony with a hold for immigration after the state charges are settled.
Of the nondetained immigrants, 40 percent are in court for entering the country illegally and 60 percent have other immigration charges.
Nationally, filings for deportation have consistently decreased since 2009.
Average monthly filings for deportation orders was down about 20 percent from 2011 levels and 23 percent from 2010 filings.
Prosecutors are closing more cases nationally, but the state is showing mixed results.
Most closures are coming from orders for deportation or voluntary removals at 56 percent nationally.
In Oklahoma, 99 percent of immigrants held at the Tulsa Jail are ordered deported or voluntarily leave, compared with about 70 percent of nondetained immigrants and 67 percent detained in other Oklahoma facilities.
About 696 cases in the state are expected to be resolved in fiscal year 2013 for nondetained immigrants, drastically up from the 354 case closures last year.
For detained immigrants, 763 cases are projected to close, down from the 777 cases last year and the high of 1,248 in 2010.
On the rise
With the decrease in filings and increase in case closings, courts experienced an improvement in the U.S. backlog in October - a first in years.
Nationally, the backlog shrunk from September to October by 1 percent to 321,633 pending cases.
But pending cases are 8.1 percent higher at the end of September compared with September 2011. They are 22.4 percent higher than in September 2010.
In Oklahoma, the number of pending cases has grown steadily from 200 cases in 2007 to the current 1,497 cases.
Wait times have not gotten better.
Across the U.S. the average number of days for cases to be resolved was 270 days, which is about two months longer than for decisions in 2011.
Orders seeking relief from deportation took more than two years, at an average of 891 days during October. That is three months longer than the average last year.
Current unclosed cases in the backlog have been waiting an average of nearly a year (532 days).
Oklahoma average wait times vary, from 359 days for nondetained immigrants to 14 days if in the Tulsa Jail.
The nondetained wait time improved from the 395 average days last year but wasn't close to the 119-day wait in 2002.
Original Print Headline: State immigration cases lag
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376