At 8:20 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday morning in October, about 25 people crowded the hallway in a government building on the edge of Omaha. Three young women chatting in Spanish leaned against the windows and sat in black metal folding chairs as they waited for a courtroom door to open. In the lobby near the front door, a mother and her son, with his blue-gray Mickey Mouse bomber jacket sagging over his tiny shoulders, walked one by one through a metal detector watched by three security guards.
The building that houses Omaha’s immigration court is just off Abbott Drive, the winding road that splits Nebraska from Iowa and might be better known as the route to Omaha’s Eppley Airfield. Five days a week, its halls are crowded with people waiting to appear before an immigration judge for a hearing where — depending on the status of their case — they’ll learn if they can stay in the U.S. or will be ordered deported.
Omaha’s court is one of more than 60 immigration courts nationwide, which are run by the U.S. Department of Justice. The court serves Nebraskans and Iowans who have been charged with violating immigration law and placed in removal proceedings. It currently has 26,469 open cases on the three immigration judges’ dockets, and those cases have been pending for nearly three years on average — making Nebraska the state with the second-longest immigration court backlog in the nation, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a Syracuse University project.
When people in removal proceedings finally get their day in court, system delays, cancellations and language barriers can further complicate the already confusing immigration system. If they can’t afford legal fees or find a pro-bono lawyer, immigrants have to represent themselves, even though having an attorney typically means better outcomes. And that’s just the first hearing. Immigrants whose cases closed this year waited 3 ½ years on average before hearing the final verdict in their case. Obtaining lawful status in the U.S. is complex, and each individual’s case differs in its time, money, emotional labor and outcome.
Cases “at a standstill”
By 8:35 that morning, the courtroom hallway was quiet and nearly empty. It would have been busier, but an announcement on the wall opposite security declared one immigration court judge’s day of hearings was canceled and rescheduled due to illness. Most people had already piled into courtroom three, where immigration judge Abby L. Meyer was on the second of about 30 cases on the morning’s docket.
Like a cattle-call, the hearing brought dozens of respondents, lawyers and family members to the courtroom at the same time. Each case’s time went quickly; respondents were called up one by one to address the charges, file applications for relief and schedule the next hearing. In a final hearing, the judge hears more evidence and testimony from the respondent, and a representative of the government cross-examines them. Then, the judge determines if they’re removable from the U.S.
Over the course of four hours and about 30 cases, Judge Meyer saw multiple families, two of which had kids under the age of 18. At least eight people had no lawyer. Many who were assigned a final hearing will return in 2023, while others won’t be back to court until 2025.
It’s likely that people who are scheduled two years out will take the time to file applications for relief or update their work visas, said attorney Lauren Schmoke, a partner at Kasaby Schmoke who had multiple family cases in court that Wednesday, in a phone interview. This is helpful given how long it takes the immigration system to process applications, but it can be confusing for clients in the moment, she said.
“It’s very difficult for people to see somebody get a hearing in 2025, and then be given a hearing in six months and to understand how people’s cases are different when everything is moving so quickly,” Schmoke said.
Many of the immigrants in court came to the U.S. fleeing violence or economic hardship in their home countries. Some entered the country seeking asylum, a legal form of protection from persecution that’s statistically difficult to be granted. Over the past 20 years in Omaha’s courts, 15% of asylum seekers with legal representation won their cases. It’s even more difficult without a lawyer; less than 1% of asylum seekers in Omaha are typically granted relief.
Joe Lord is a lead attorney specializing in asylum claims at the Immigrant Legal Center, a nonprofit that provides free legal services, education and advocacy for immigrants in Nebraska and Southwest Iowa. Out of more than 20 asylum cases he’s had in court the past four years, he said only one was granted asylum and two were eligible for other forms of relief. The rest were denied.
Lord said the backlog in cases provides a lot of fear and anxiety for many of his clients because “their cases are basically at a standstill.” On the other hand, the likely years-long wait gives people more time to live their lives in the U.S. and apply for other forms of relief they may be eligible for beyond asylum. Statistically, he said, the odds are stacked against asylum seekers — Nebraska’s court has some of the highest asylum denial rates in the country.
“We can fight the good fight in court, but the reality is it’s a very slim chance that even the best cases will get a(n) (asylum) grant,” he said.
Fifteen-year-old Anthony sat at a courtroom desk and listened to the translator’s Spanish through black headphones that rested on his dark brown hair. He drove an hour and 15 minutes from Crete to the Omaha court Wednesday morning with his godmother, who sat next to him at the desk along with his lawyer. His mom is in Guatemala.
“Thank you for bringing him today,” Judge Meyer told his godmother.
Anthony’s attorney explained he filed an application for asylum and would like time for that to process. Judge Meyer assigned Anthony’s next hearing in 2025 — not yet a final hearing, giving his attorney time to explore more options for relief.
“The court will designate Guatemala as the country of removal if necessary,” Judge Meyer said.
Looking for a lawyer
When it came time for hearings for people without representation, Judge Meyer offered those with first-time hearings a continuance on their case until 2023. Reyna, a young mother, was one of seven given more time to find a lawyer. Feb. 10, 2023 is the next time she and her 8-year-old son, Nelson, will have to be back at court, the judge told her.
“I felt a little nervous; it’s my first time in court,” Reyna said in Spanish after her hearing. She first learned of her case six months ago and said she didn’t have time to find a lawyer.
Sitting on a black folding chair in the courtroom hallway, she held her infant close to her chest. A tint of faded green on the ends of her brown hair rested on her dark-washed-blue jean jacket, and a black “Selena” t-shirt peeked out from under it.
Her partner, Tómas, stood with Nelson, who sported NASA pajama pants and an orange puffer jacket. A bespectacled woman in a Nebraska sweatshirt stood beside them. She’s Mary Beth, a private translator, who drove Reyna’s family from Crete.
Reyna said she wishes she had more time in court to move her case forward like respondents with lawyers seemed to have. Nevertheless, she was relieved to get more time to find legal representation — she thought she might find someone in Lincoln who could help her.
“What’s most important now is to look for a lawyer,” Tómas said.
All immigration court respondents have a right to a lawyer, but there’s no rule that makes the court provide them with one. High legal fees and lawyers with overbooked case loads mean many immigrants go through the system without legal representation. According to TRAC data, 43% of Nebraskans’ cases do not have legal representation.
Despite the best efforts of organizations like ILC offering free or reduced-price legal services, the need is often far greater than an organization’s ability to help, Lord said.
Schmoke feels the same way.
“We really live in an area that’s heavily populated by immigrants,” but the court is too small to meet the growing needs in Iowa and Nebraska, she said.
A spokesperson from the DOJ’s Executive Office of Immigration Review said Omaha’s immigration court hired two new support staff this year, as part of a national plan to hire hundreds more immigration judges and support staff in immigration courts to alleviate delays.
Luz, a woman who had the final case of the morning, understands what it feels like to go through court on her own. Wearing a cheetah print dress with matching print ballet flats, she sat alone at the desk listening to the court translator’s real-time Spanish translations.
“Your case has been on the docket for 12 years,” Judge Meyer said.
Luz, a native of Mexico, was first issued a notice to appear in court in 2010, according to documents Judge Meyer read aloud. Luz told the judge she’s working with an attorney outside of court who helped her file for a U-Visa, a special visa for victims of certain crimes who have been abused and have helped law enforcement in their investigations.
The court however had no documentation of any relief filed. Judge Meyer asked Luz to come back a week later with a receipt or some proof of her U-Visa filing; she’ll need good reason to continue the case.
As Luz walked out of the court building into the afternoon sun, she said she’s confused and frustrated about the situation — but she would remain focused on finding proof of her visa filing. In the 12 years of her court case, she’s grown accustomed to the complex and difficult system, despite her best efforts to stay on top of it.