Monday, April 03, 2006

Mario Escobar has had his deportation hearing delayed twice.

Student’s fate depends on overburdened court

EUNICE KWON/daily bruin
Mario Escobar has had his deportation hearing delayed twice.

By Adam Foxman

As thousands across the nation took to the streets last Tuesday to protest legislation that would increase penalties against undocumented immigrants, Mario Escobar paced nervously in front of the Los Angeles Immigration Court on Olive Street.

He was waiting for a judge to either deport him to El Salvador, from which he fled following the country's civil war, or grant him political asylum.

Neither happened, as it turned out.

More than a year after Escobar's court date was delayed the first time, the fourth-year English and Spanish student's deportation hearing was pushed back for an additional six months.

Judge William Martin Jr. was prepared to hear the case Tuesday, and Escobar – with his wife, his psychologist and a friend in tow – had come to the courtroom expecting resolution in his bid for political asylum.

But the case was delayed because the counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not have his file.

Kristin Piepmeier, the U.S. government's counsel, told Martin she did not have Escobar's file because, though she had ordered it on March 17, it was accidently sent to the National Records Center in Missouri.

"I made a mistake," Piepmeier said, explaining that she expected the file to arrive "any day now."

The judge, visibly frustrated, expressed dismay at having to delay the case after setting aside plenty of time to hear the counsel's position as well as Escobar's defense and testimony from his psychologist.

He urged Escobar's lawyer to work toward an agreement with the counsel in order to more quickly settle the case, and he rescheduled the hearing for Sept. 13.

Escobar, who was in tears hours before the scheduled hearing, said the postponement made him want to scream.

"I'm still in the same predicament," he said. "All I want is for this nightmare to be over."

Escobar, who is an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, fled from his home country to the United States more than a decade ago. He is applying for political sanctuary based on the trauma he suffered during El Salvador's civil war.

His father and grandmother were killed in that conflict, which lasted from about 1979 to 1992. And as an 11-year-old near the end of the war, Escobar was kidnapped and held for almost a year by former members of the Salvadorian military.

Escobar's hearing was not the only one postponed Tuesday. An asylum hearing scheduled immediately before his was also pushed back for six months.

Delays are common in Los Angeles' immigration court, and with a steady increase in immigration cases nationwide in recent years, the situation appears unlikely to improve.

For Escobar, a delayed hearing means more months of anxiety, he said, explaining that his unresolved case is also impeding upon his efforts to become a professor.

During his time at UCLA, the 28-year-old student took early steps down that path. He gave a lecture at UC Santa Barbara on the difficulties Central Americans face in the United States, and spoke about Roque Dalton, a Salvadorian poet, at California State University, Northridge.

He is also scheduled to speak on April 7 at the Salvadorian Embassy in Washington, D.C., about a literary magazine he established as a forum for Central American issues.

But because of his status as an undocumented immigrant, he has had to turn down offers to speak in El Salvador and Canada, and he has had difficulty securing fellowships, he said.

Escobar is one of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States at whom the Senate and the House are aiming controversial immigration-reform proposals.

The differences in the two proposals illustrate the deep ideological divide – in both Congress and the country at large – over issues of illegal immigration.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently released a proposal that would give many current undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and establish a guest-worker program.

In contrast, the House's bill, passed late last year, would increase penalties for illegal immigration and erect a 700-mile-long wall between the United States and Mexico.

Opponents of the Senate Judiciary Committee's proposal call it an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Critics of the more stringent bill passed by the House have said it is unnecessarily harsh, unenforceable and would split up many families who have undocumented members. Neither proposal is final, and as many of their provisions are in direct opposition, they are likely to see fierce debate in Congress before they can become law.

But either bill, if it goes into law as written, would likely have dramatic effects on the nation's immigration courts, which are already dealing with a growing number of cases.

Between 2004 and 2005, the country's immigration courts saw a 23 percent increase in the number of cases received nationwide, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. The number of cases increased 31 percent from 2001 to 2005, from 282,396 to 368,848.

Los Angeles' court has 23 judges and received 17,182 cases in 2005.

The number in 2004 was 15,281.

And in these busy courts, delays caused by administrative mistakes – like the one Escobar experienced – are not uncommon, according to several immigration lawyers.

Armineh Ebrahimian, Escobar's lawyer, said delays of all types are common in Los Angeles' court.

And Joren Lyons, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus, said that though San Francisco's immigration court generally runs smoothly, cases are sometimes postponed because of missing or misplaced files.

If the House's bill becomes law, immigration courts could see an additional influx of cases.

The House bill, HR4437, includes a provision that would make it a felony to be an illegal resident of the United States, and would make providing assistance to illegal immigrants a felony as well.

Since the House bill seeks to crack down on illegal immigration it would, if passed, ramp up deportations and have a "severe impact on the dockets of the courts," Lyons said.

Lyons also said the path toward legalization opened by the Senate Judiciary Committee's proposal could lessen strain on immigration courts. But some facets of the proposal could increase pressure on the courts.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's proposal, for example, would allow for re-evaluations of undocumented immigrants' criminal records, which could lead to deportations based on past offenses, according to analysis of the proposal by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

This provision could increase deportations and lessen the discretion immigration judges can exercise, thereby increasing strain on the courts, Lyons said.

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