As I set down my papers on the living room table for our interview, Yeni Gomez apologized while she cleared the space.
“We rarely sit down to eat since he has been detained,” she explained.
Marco Antonio Alfaro Garcia, her partner of over six years, is in immigration custody. Yeni, who is an American citizen, has been caring for their three U.S.-born, young children on her own.
She explained that the separation from Marco is hard enough, but the waiting around while nothing happens makes things worse. Marco, like hundreds of other immigrants around the country, has been waiting months for an answer to whether he will get to present his case to an immigration judge.
On January 15, 2014, Marco was stopped by the local police. Other than a conviction for driving without a license, Marco has no criminal history. He was set to be released eight hours after the stop, but was instead turned over to immigration authorities the next day. Because he had been deported in 2005, immigration officials told him that he would be sent back to El Salvador without seeing a judge. Marco objected, explaining that he feared for his life in El Salvador. That’s when the waiting started.
Individuals like Marco, because of a prior order of removal, must go through what is known as a “reasonable fear” determination process. That means that an asylum officer must interview Marco and determine whether he has established a reasonable basis for fearing returning to El Salvador. Then—and only then—can Marco get the chance to present his case to an immigration judge.
Immigration regulations require that the asylum officers complete the “reasonable fear” determination process within 10 days. But in reality the wait can take months. Marco, for example, has been waiting three months for that determination. In other parts of the country, the wait times are even longer, sometimes reaching over a year.
Like Marco, there are hundreds of other immigrants, languishing in detention, waiting for the government to complete their “reasonable fear” determinations. And this number is likely to increase, as the Obama administration relies more and more on issuing formal removal orders that attach severe consequences for people detained at the border and elsewhere, prioritizing deportations for people with prior removal orders, and as violence and persecution increases in Central America and other parts of the world, forcing individuals to flee in search of safety. In fact, government statistics show that the number of immigrants going through the “reasonable fear” determination process has increased from 325 in 2006 to 7,733 in 2013, and more than 2,235 just in the first quarter of 2014.
Detaining individuals for months while they wait for a “reasonable fear” determination is not only in violation of the immigration laws, but is also costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The government reported that, in 2013, it took an average of 111 days to process a “reasonable fear” case. This means that the government spent over $52 million detaining individuals like Marco just last year. If the government had stuck to the 10-day deadline, it could have saved taxpayers over $40 million.
Yesterday, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, together with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, the National Immigrant Justice Center and the law firm of Reed Smith, filed a nationwide class action. The ask is simple: follow the immigration laws and complete “reasonable fear” determinations within the mandated 10-day period.
In the meantime, Marco, like many others, must wait in detention separated from his family.
“I never thought I would become one of those families,” Yeni explained; one of those families torn apart by inhumane immigration enforcement.
Recently, President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that the federal government will review immigration enforcement priorities to ensure they are humane. Leaving immigrants like Marco to languish in detention for months is surely not humane. The U.S. government should live up to its commitment to providing prompt and fair processing of claims to all immigrants seeking protection from persecution or torture within our borders.
Carmen Iguina is equal justice works fellow at the ACLU of Southern California.