Joe Arpaio is the new Bull Connors

In the same way Sheriff Bull Connor–the racist lawman of Birmingham, Alabama who served his office during the height of the Civil Rights Movement–came to embody the system of racial oppression framing life for Southern Blacks, so, too, Joe Arpaio is becoming the national embodiment of the similar system framing Latino life in the 21st century.

Just see this editorial from a recent Washington Post.

Even Neo-Liberal Stalwarts Think McCain is Losing Latinos

A succinct summary of much of this blog’s meandering commentary of the past two months can be found in this article from The Economist.

My disappointment in the association of my views with this relentlessly (and blindly) capitalistic, free trade, and neo-liberal magazine is assuaged by two things: first, the magazine–for all its faults–is at least consistent and thorough; and, second, this article about Latinos and McCain actually uses the word “fortnight.”

All kidding aside, when this news is getting consolidated and regurgitated by The Economist, McCain and the Republicans have some worrying to do.

I think the biggest concern for Republicans (not addressed by the piece) should be the “permanent” loss of the so-called “Latino electorate.”  As I and others have been writing about, the notion that there is a monolithic, Latino voting bloc is not only historically inaccurate but also far-fetched in current political culture.  But this seems to be changing.  The recent immigration debacle, and current raids, are all creating something of a unifying political experience for politically-diverse Latino population.  Inasmuch as the Republican party is being linked to the aspects of these we find disturbing and, often, reprehensible, they suffer through the loss of any support by Latinos.

The New Veterans G.I Bill and Educational Opportunity

The recent Chronicle of Higher Education presents an informative article on the “21st Century G.I. Bill”–Senator Jim Webb’s legislation designed to offer educational opportunities to this nation’s veterans.

Read the article here.

There are some surprising trends among returning veterans making use of the bill’s provisions. Among them, veterans seems to be enrolling in community colleges and for-profit educational institutions at higher rates with their funds than at “traditional,” four-year universities and colleges.

One of the reasons may be cost–as the current legislation only provides about three-quarters of the cost of an average college or university. Community Colleges (though severely more expensive than they were for the WWII and “baby boom” generations) are more affordable than four-year colleges. The benefit meets most of the veteran’s educational cost need.

But the for-profit educational institution is NOT less expensive. In fact, places like this charge higher fees for a degree that is worth far less in the market place. None of these institutions is accredited in the same way as most four-year and two-tear colleges are. Most do, however, offer convenience. Places like these pioneered the online course almost a decade ago.

This is something of a contrast to the original G.I. Bill, a piece of legislation that allowed for returning WWII veterans to attended college for free. As the article mentions, there is some debate as to the impact of this original legislation. Some historians celebrate the bill as the cornerstone of the postwar economic boom, which facilitated to movement of a large share of Americans into the middle class. Other say it “privileged the privileged.”

As a historical topic, I’ve been very interested in the G.I Bill and other benefits given to the so-called “greatest generation,” in addition to those given to the baby boom generation. While the original bill may not have been as transformative as some historians give it credit for, it was one part of a collection of public funding efforts that benefited (mostly white) WWII generation members. Their children–the baby boomers–got an equally staggering amount of public funds dedicated to their upbringing, everything from new roads and bridges, to new cities and water and electrical works, to new schools, and a bunch of subsidies to afford those.

Either way, we are awarding our current veterans (and even rank and file current citizens) in a reduced manner when it comes to public funds for their development and economic progress. For those trying to recreate the economic good times of the second-half of the twentieth century (at least when they were good), this is significant. That “boom” was anything but free of government handouts.

If you are a Gen-Xer, the next time anybody over the age of 55 tells you you got it easy growing up when you did, politely give them an elbow, and walk away. Just avoid major organs; their recovery costs a lot of tax dollars too.

Latinos Give Juan McCain the Frío Shoulder

A new research report issued by the Pew Hispanic Center shows Barack Obama leading over John McCain by a 66% to 23% among registered Latino voters.

That almost a 3 to 1 margin.

The report is a reminder to hesitate in believing political pundits, though you most likely don’t need that reminder. Still, if you remember, last month as the Democratic primary finally came to its long awaited close, every time you turned on the TV to the news you would see some talking head predicting Obama would struggle with the Latino vote in November, as he did during the primaries. Well, doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case.

Come to think of it, I remember hearing a lot of commentators predict Hillary Clinton voters would jump ship over to McCain as well. Turns out, more than 75% of Latinos who once supported Clinton now support Obama. Only 8% have declared their support for McCain. That’s better than Obama’s numbers for whites who voted for Clinton (where 70% support him and 18% McCain)

The most important numbers in the poll are the ones showing where Latino registered voters “lean.”  The poll estimates 65% of us are leaning to the Democratic Party while only 26% are leaning to the Republicans.  This 39% point differential is the largest “than at any time in the past decade.”

Why this is important is because this shows that, in fact, the Latino electorate may be becoming an actual voting bloc.  The debacle of immigration is becoming the equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement for the African American voter.  By the time my kids are old enough to vote, the words “Latino Republicans” might sound like “Black Republicans.”  It’s not impossible, or so rare you never meet one, but you always wonder about them.

Download the report here.

The “Border Beat” (July 25, 2008)

The “Border Beat” returns with a sampling of some of the Latino-themed and related stories you might have missed in the past week.

• “U.S. Latinos may get a national museum of their own” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
I first heard of this a few months ago when a friend emailed me news of the composition of the 23-member commission. Experience tells me struggles like these result in watered-down, consensus kinds of histories. Still, it’d be nice, no?

• “AIDS Among Latinos on Rise” (Washington Post)
This is a sad reminder not only of the continuing need for concentrated effort in the fight against AIDS, but also of the ways race/class factors mitigate a person’s exposure to things like prevention education and health care.

• “Jobs For Day Laborers Are Dwindling” (McClatchy Newspapers)
A small report on an increasingly common phenomenon. The lack of employment for entire classes of manual laborers in this recession/depression economy is the easiest way to understand the measurable decrease in immigration.

• “Immigration Stories Told in Quilts” (WBEZ Chicago)
Two musuem stories? I’m feeling cultured my friends! The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago hosts a new exhibit titled A Declaration of Immigration, featuring a collection of family stories of immigration, some of which are told on a quilt. This story from Chicago’s public radio station can be listened to or read, and discusses the exhibit and the quilting process.

• “Agents arrest 43 Mexican immigrants” (AG Weekly)
This would almost be a non-story if not for the fact that these workers were arrested in HAWAII! That’s right, agricultural production in Hawaii is increasingly relying on Mexican immigrant labor. While there is a long history to the presence of Latino labor in HI, this story should at least help you think about how immigrant labor gets from their homes to their foreign worksites when there is no border to cross. It’s called labor importation, and it happens in the other 49 states too.

• “SC county may make English official language” (Business Week)
And to finish things off, this little ditty from way down in the heart of Dixie. This is a complicated issue if you think about the forces behind it: economic uncertainty, dislocation, racism, just to name a few. But the solution is simple, and truly insignificant in the scheme of things. What it does do is send a message to Latinos that the “white society” doesn’t want us. Doesn’t give those disenfranchised whites any more power, doesn’t stop the economic dislocation laying rural Latin America bare, doesn’t stop U.S. corporations from importing brown folk to abuse and under pay them…it doesn’t even make Latinos learn English any faster than they already do.

FINALLY, though it isn’t related explicitly to anything I write about, go check out the website for the upcoming animated film STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS. (As if you haven’t already…and Wookies just mught be Chicanos anyways, so…)

May the force be with you.

Rosario Dawson and Wilmer Valderrama Share la Pasion

Actress Rosario Dawson is one of the founders of an organization called Voto Latino. Founded as a Latino-centered, voter-registration effort, the group has worked rather successfully doing just that for a few elections now. Dawson has been recognized for her efforts by a couple Latino organizations in the past two years.

The organization has an army of corporate sponsors, a who’s who of the Spanish speaking market. It mixes traditional voter registration within a social networking platform and web 2.0 kinds of tactics. One of their “new” kinds of tactics was a telenovela spoof, starring Dawson and Wilmer Valderrama, who also directed. Called “La Pasion de la Decision”–“the passion of the decision”–the mini-novela comes in four parts and focuses on perhaps the most common theme in al Spanish-language drama…er, voter reg?

In addition to Valderrama and Dawson, it also features the talents of Tony Plana, Mayte Garcia, and Nick Zando. At the risk of encouraging more make out scenes with Valderrama and Dawson, here are the four “episodes.”

p.s. I’ll be nice and tag this as “Entertainment.”

UPDATE (7-25-08):  See the People Magazine story on Dawson and Voto Latino.

What is the difference between a “legal” and “illegal” immigrant?

Let me offer an answer to the above question in two versions, one short and direct and the other much longer but more explanatory.

The difference is “race.”

In the most literal of senses, with respect to race, the United States is an ignorant nation. We lack accurate, complex, and meaningful knowledge of race, as it relates to both our past and present. Put more directly, we don’t understand race. And we don’t understand how to dismantle its negative effects on everyday life.

Indeed, our ignorance nurtures a condition in which any collective ability to create a more equitable and humane society along these lines is almost instantly derailed. This is not for lack of good intentions, but for lack of deep understanding. Those united in some form of struggle against racism often do not know what it is they fight against and, accordingly, find themselves unable make true progress. Others, ignorant of the myriad ways they cling to and feed the very monster they hope to kill, end up serving their foe more than the cause of freedom.

[You may be thinking here, “What about the Civil Rights movement?” For the sake of time, I defer to Shirley Chisholm’s bold words on the subject, published in her 1971 biography, Unbought and Unbossed. Find it in a library somewhere and all will become clear.]

As a teacher, and as a historian, I view the alteration of this condition as difficult but by no means impossible. All ignorance is curable; it is the most curable of all social ills. The great healer—education—is not as accessible as it should be, nor as enriching as it must, but that, too, is changeable. Our biggest collective advantage, I hope, is that most of “us” thirst for enlightenment, for experiences helping each to better understand their self and others.

Unfortunately, that thirst is often at the heart of our ignorance. Absent exposure to and training in critical analysis, we turn to what we can find, the “truth” sold to us from politicians, pundits, and the status quo. We reiterate the things we hear from others that sound good to us (often what seems “new” or “unique”), that help us bolster what it is we want to think, that help us defend who we think we are. Instead of truth, we unwittingly become purveyors of fear, of desire, of ignorance.

I am not speaking here of “the uneducated.” Academics, scholars, and the so-called “educated” populate “the army of the ignorant” as frequently as any. They even occupy a disproportionate share of its “four-star generals.” But some, a growing number I’d like to think, are also the embodiment of the ideas and practices that will liberate us all. These scholars join the larger body of people from almost all walks of life, many without a “traditional education,” who provide flesh to the bone of idealism—movement.

I don’t pretend to wield all the weapons in the fight against this ignorance, but I know I can work a few. As a historian, one of the reliable tools I can turn to is context. A sense of how what we know of our present is part of a given time and place, both of which are connected to a time before, is, itself, a form of critical analysis. Such a position helps us to question what we may “naturally” think, to investigate it anew—hold it suspended and apart as well as fluid and interconnected. In the end, we don’t question to question, but to better understand. Even if you end up at the same position, it will never be the same conclusion.

So how does this relate to our question?

In the early part of the twentieth century, Mexican nationals began entering the United States in growing numbers as they fled the economic and political dislocation of the Mexican Revolution. Newspapers of the Southwest described this movement as an “invasion,” with one describing the migrants as “a horde of the copper-colored natives of the war-torn republic.” Such accounts are not hard to locate in the historical record, forming as they do the majority of the printed responses to the historical phenomenon.

Despite this clear racialized fear, these “invaders” entered the U.S. legally. The condition of this legality had little to do with them but everything to do with the United States. In this period, the U.S. erected no meaningful barriers to the entrance of immigrants—the one great exception being Chinese, who were formally banned from migration beginning in 1882, bestowing upon those who managed to circumvent this law the distinction of being this nation’s first “illegal immigrant.” Irish, Italian, English, German, and, yes, even Mexican migrants found little impediment to their movement and integration into the national economy. They fulfilled an economic need, and were often believed to be biologically suited to the kinds of labor asked of them.

(In fact, regional business interests often facilitated the migrants’ movement and integration. These interests created mechanisms to advertise lucrative job opportunities to populations of prospective migrant workers. They often paid or provided for their transportation, and met them at the depot with promises of employment or a contractor who would connect them to the need.)

All this would change in the 1920s, as the U.S. moved to create a bureaucratic structure to implement the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the “Quota Act.” The crowning jewel in a crown of racist fear, the law sought to advantage northern European immigrants (English, Scandinavians) at the expense of the “swarthy” immigrant (Italian, Jewish, Greek, etc.). Ideas of racial fitness dictated that the very same migrant from a year or two before must now be considered “illegal.”

However, yet again, Mexicans did not find themselves part of this racist legislation. Migrants in the western hemisphere were exempted from quota in the 1924 act. Though the new bureaucracy of the Border Patrol did create a mechanism for “legal” passage (payment of a fee, proof of literacy and good health), accounts of border enforcement in the era often reveal regulation to entail nothing more than acquiescence to the demand “Show me your hands Mex.” Western capitalism both “protected” Mexican migrants and took advantage of them, securing their exemption from the law to assure their steady movement into the fields, rail yards, and factories of the region.

This “protection” would not survive the Great Depression, though the integration of Mexican labor into the regional economy did not alter course much over the century as a whole. Mexicans found themselves increasingly targeted by both legislation and regulatory practice, exemplified by such postwar round up efforts as “Operation Wetback.”

History and an understanding of context shatters our collective ability to view the distinction of “legal” and “illegal” immigrant as something contained within the actions of the immigrants themselves. These terms carry weight as they are given bureaucratic form—by the receiving nation of the United States. Even in the modern context, it is the U.S. who determines the context of “legal” crossing, creating numerical barriers delineating the “legal” from the “illegal” while massaging an economic system into continuing to find ways to seek their employment, in either case.

This is not to say people do not make their decision to cross the border in a context of awareness of the legality (or illegality) of their actions. But it is to say that is a context not, largely, of their making.

Our ignorance of these realities does more than obscure understanding. Every time we complain about the high cost of lettuce or a tomato, when we expect low service costs in hotels or janitorial work, when we become indifferent to the obliteration of union jobs, we actually help nurture the context.

Indeed, as James Baldwin once wrote of this nation’s majority, “It is their innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Maná Loves Obama

The members of Mexican rock band Maná have thrown their gorras in the ring with Barack Obama.

The multi-platinum, internationally-renowned stars of rock en español have been a consistent voice in the political arena, often directing attention to the unfolding struggle for global human rights. Previously, the band had declared their support for the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and, on Tuesday, made known their support for Obama in the contest against John McCain.

A non-U.S. citizen or resident, let alone a Mexican rock band taking a stand in a U.S. election might seem strange to somebody only familiar with political life in the U.S., but it is hardly rare. Much of the rest of the world–and most of Latin America, in particular–takes more than a passing interest in what happens on the U.S. political scene. The disproportionate ways these (U.S.) changes affect them are both a reflection of the current status of the “American Empire” as well as the foundation of their political concern.

Maná expressed their support in a recent interview, in which front man Fher Olvera said “everyone talks about change, but he [Obama] is himself a change.”

Concerns of the group and, they said, Latinos in general, included the construction of a “humiliating border wall” and the lack of importance given to “the civil rights of those who work in the United States, those who bring the bread to the American’s table.” [Source.]

Cool, no?

I might add, if you EVER get the chance to see them in concert, you will not be disappointed. I have only been to three entertainment experiences in the U.S. where the space transformed into something “other,” something uniquely and beautifully out of place in the most useful and rich senses. Maná is responsible for two of those.

The Criminalization of Immigrants is the Context of Abuse

The vast majority of the ubiquitous anti-immigrant culture stems from a historic and systemic association with people of color (and immigrants in particular) with criminality. This is as “American as apple pie,” a tradition labeling non-whites as threats and–far more significantly–using this as a rationale for regulating their bodies in terms of movements and rights.

If you don’t believe this, I suggest you read a bit on racial oppression in this nation in the last 80 years. In time, the pattern will emerge.

For some of the ways this currently manifests itself, this recent New York Times article does the job.

Immigrant, Pregnant, Is Jailed Under Pact

By Julia Preston
New York Times

It started when Juana Villegas, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was nine months pregnant, was pulled over by a police officer in a Nashville suburb for a routine traffic violation.

By the time Mrs. Villegas was released from the county jail six days later, she had gone through labor with a sheriff’s officer standing guard in her hospital room, where one of her feet was cuffed to the bed most of the time. County officers barred her from seeing or speaking with her husband.

After she was discharged from the hospital, Mrs. Villegas was separated from her nursing infant for two days and barred from taking a breast pump into the jail, her lawyer and a doctor familiar with the case said. Her breasts became infected, and the newborn boy developed jaundice, they said.

Mrs. Villegas’s arrest has focused new attention on a cooperation agreement signed in April 2007 between federal immigration authorities and Davidson County, which shares a consolidated government with Nashville, that gave immigration enforcement powers to county officers. It is one of 57 agreements, known formally as 287G, that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has signed in the last two years with county and local police departments across the country under a rapidly expanding program.

Nashville officials have praised the agreement as a successful partnership between local and federal government.

“We are able to identify and report individuals who are here illegally and have been charged with a criminal offense, while at the same time remaining a friendly and open city to our new legal residents,” Karl Dean, the mayor of Nashville, said in a statement on Friday.

Lawyers and immigrant advocates say Mrs. Villegas’s case shows how local police can exceed their authority when they seek to act on immigration laws they are not fully trained to enforce.

“Had it not been for the 287G program, she would not have been taken down to jail,” said A. Gregory Ramos, a lawyer who is a former president of the Nashville Bar Association. “It was sold as something to make the community safer by taking dangerous criminals off the streets. But it has been operated so broadly that we are getting pregnant women arrested for simple driving offenses, and we’re not getting rid of the robbers and gang members.”

Mrs. Villegas, who is 33, has lived in the United States since 1996, and has three other children besides the newborn who are American citizens because they were born here.

She was stopped on July 3 in her husband’s pickup truck by a police officer from Berry Hill, a Nashville suburb, initially for “careless driving.” After Mrs. Villegas told the officer she did not have a license, he did not issue a ticket but arrested her instead. Elliott Ozment, Mrs. Villegas’s lawyer, said driving without a license is a misdemeanor in Tennessee that police officers generally handle with a citation, not an arrest.

After Mrs. Villegas was taken to the Davidson County jail, a federal immigration agent working there as part of the cooperation agreement conducted a background check. It showed that Mrs. Villegas was an illegal immigrant who had been deported once from the United States in March 1996, Karla Weikal, a spokeswoman for the county sheriff, said. She had no other criminal record.

As a result, immigration agents issued an order to take charge of Mrs. Villegas once she was released by the local authorities. Based on that order, county officers designated her a medium-security inmate in the jail, Ms. Weikal said.

So when Mrs. Villegas went into labor on the night of July 5, she was handcuffed and accompanied by a deputy as she was taken by ambulance to Nashville General Hospital at Meharry. Cuffs chaining her foot to the hospital bed were opened when she reached the final stages of labor, Mrs. Villegas said.

“I felt like they were treating me like a criminal person,” Mrs. Villegas said, speaking in Spanish in a telephone interview. The phone in her room was turned off, and she was not permitted to speak with her husband when he came to retrieve their newborn son from the hospital on July 7 as she returned to jail, she said.

As Mrs. Villegas left the hospital, a nurse offered her a breast pump but a sheriff’s deputy said she could not take it into the jail, Mrs. Villegas said.

Mr. Ozment, the lawyer, said Mrs. Villegas would never have been detained without the 287G cooperation agreement.

“Whether this lady was documented or undocumented should not affect how she was treated in her late pregnant condition and as she was going through labor and bonding with her new baby,” Mr. Ozment said.

On July 8, Mrs. Villegas was taken to court, where she pleaded guilty to driving without a license and was sentenced to time served. Immigration agents immediately released her while a deportation case proceeds, following a policy adopted last year by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to avoid separating babies from nursing mothers.

Ms. Weikal said Mrs. Villegas’s jail stay was prolonged by the Independence Day holiday weekend, when the courts were closed.

“There is a perception that she was treated different from other inmates, and it just is not true,” Ms. Weikal said. “Unfortunately the business of corrections is that families are separated. It’s not pretty, it’s not understandable to a lot of people.”

She said that it was standard procedure to bar medical equipment like a breast pump from the jail.

More than 60,000 illegal immigrants have been identified for deportation since 2006 through 287G cooperation programs, said Richard Rocha, a spokesman for the federal immigration agency. Most of the agreements are aimed at increasing the screening of immigrant convicts serving sentences in local jails, in order to speed their deportation. Some, like Nashville’s, provide for immigration screening right after any foreign-born person is arrested.

Arrests of immigrants have increased rapidly in Tennessee since early 2006, when the state stopped allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, after five years when they had been able to drive legally.

This is why the U.S. doesn’t “just deport them all”

Today’s L.A. Times offers us a glimpse into the bureaucratic nightmare of rising deportations and searches for illegal immigrants. And this is for what, less than one half of one percent of all the possible number of cases if the federal government tried to deport every undocumented person?

This reality is not just a function of government-created bureaucracy. Those systems are there for a reason. They stand as a safeguard of a person’s rights. To dismantle them is to dismantle what most of us supposedly stand for.

[Actually, the vast majority of court cases that come before the federal court system have to do with some for of lubrication for the so-called “market economy.” So much for a naturally-operating economic system, huh?]

The inability of this nation to effectively deport the millions of immigrants it deems as “illegal” is less tied to its bureaucratic systems and far more tied to the myriad ways it sought and brought them here in the first place.

L.A. Immigration Court caseload soars

And wait times are growing because the number of judges has not kept pace.

By Anna Gorman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 21, 2008

The number of foreigners landing in Los Angeles Immigration Court has surged in recent years, while the number of judges has remained about the same, causing crushing caseloads and lengthy delays.

Expanded immigration enforcement, including the ongoing search for illegal immigrants in county jails, is causing much of the rise, according to judges, attorneys and experts.

“I don’t think it’s possible for a court to implode from weight, but we may see,” said former L.A. Immigration Judge Gilbert T. Gembacz, who retired last month after more than a decade on the bench.

Los Angeles immigration judges heard 27,200 cases last fiscal year, up from about 17,800 in 2000. In the last fiscal year alone, the number of immigration cases rose nearly 40%.

Today, 23 judges are assigned to Immigration Court, just two more than in 2000.

Immigration courts nationwide mirror the trend. Last fiscal year, judges heard 334,600 cases, up from 254,500 in 2000. During the same period, the number of judges increased to 220 from 207.

“Because of the high volume of the immigration docket, there is a great concern that respondents appearing before us do not believe they are given adequate opportunity to present their cases,” said San Francisco Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks, head of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges, the judges’ union.

Cases are also becoming more difficult as laws change and new regulations are written, making it harder for judges to complete cases quickly.

“You are asking us to do death penalty cases in a traffic court setting with traffic court resources,” Marks said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the courts are critical to the government’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

“We can go out there and make arrests,” she said, “but the efficiency of the legal process is going to have a tremendous impact on the outcome.”

44 cases, 1 judge

On a recent day in Los Angeles Immigration Court, one judge had 44 cases on the docket. Every seat was filled, and a crowd waited in the hall. The judge heard the cases quickly, getting updates, asking questions and setting new court dates — sometimes six months in the future.

A few floors down, immigration attorney P. Joseph Sandoval said he arrived 15 minutes early for his appearance, but the court was already packed and seven other attorneys had checked in before him.

“It’s frustrating for both the clients as well as the attorneys, because the number of cases keeps increasing but the number of judges doesn’t,” he said.

As a result, Sandoval said, cases can drag on for years. He cited a Russian client who first appeared in Los Angeles Immigration Court in 2002 and whose case still has not been resolved. Now, he said, a recent appellate court decision may derail her chances of becoming a legal resident.

Beverly Hills attorney Ed Pilot said he has a Nigerian asylum case that has been going on since 1999. The case was about to finish in early 2007 when the assigned judge retired. Pilot said his client has not had a hearing since and is not scheduled to appear in court until December.

“It’s sort of like an athlete who has put on his game face and is in game mode, all for naught,” he said.

When another judge, Gembacz, retired, he was handling a workload of more than 1,600 active cases. Despite time pressures, Gembacz said, he let people tell their stories — even if it took longer than necessary.

“They have waited two, three, four years,” he said. “It’s only fair to give them the time.”

But some judges are unable to spend that much time on individual cases, leading appellate courts to send them back for more thorough review.

“There are no doubt many conscientious, dedicated and thorough immigration courts across the country,” one federal appellate judge wrote in a 2006 asylum case. “Unfortunately, their hard work is overshadowed by the significantly increasing rate at which adjudication lacking in reason, logic and effort from other immigration courts is reaching the federal circuits.”

To manage the growing caseload, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts nationwide, uses videoconferencing, sets timelines for judges to complete cases and tries to hire judges where needed. The budget for the agency has increased from $147 million in 2000 to $227 million last year, but more is always needed, said spokeswoman Susan Eastwood.

“We are a federal agency, and Congress controls our money,” she said. “We ask for money, but we don’t always get what we want.”

Nevertheless, Eastwood said she was confident that the judges would be able to handle any further increased caseload.

Immigration courts need to be properly funded because people have a right to their day in court in a timely manner, said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. In addition, she said, “Having them function effectively is important . . . to get the return on the enforcement dollar.”

Too few attorneys too

In Los Angeles, about 45 government attorneys rotate through Immigration Court, depending on other enforcement needs, said Kevin Riley, deputy chief counsel of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. Riley said the attorneys also have to deal with the challenges of heavy and complex caseloads.

To ease the numbers, the federal government processes some cases without going to court. For example, if someone has previously been ordered deported and then returns to the United States, agents simply reinstate the order and deport the illegal immigrant again.

In other areas, government attorneys are trying a pilot program to keep a sole government attorney on a case from start to finish.

Vera Weisz, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer, said there are “huge inefficiencies” in the system but acknowledged that court delays are not always a bad thing.

“It works to some people’s benefit, because we are trying to keep them here as long as possible,” she said.

For example, time has helped Mexican immigrant Tomas Garcia’s case. Since he has been fighting in court to stay in the U.S., his wife has become a U.S. citizen and filed a petition for his green card. The petition was approved, and his next court date is in January, but Weisz said it would probably be a year before a judge approves the green card.

Garcia said he understood that his is one of thousands of cases, but he wished he didn’t have to live in limbo for so long.

“If I got it at the first court appearance,” he said, “it would have been better because there wouldn’t have been worry or stress.”