The 200 border kids placed in Nebraska will enter an immigration court system where the average wait time for a hearing — when a judge decides whether they should be deported — surpasses two years.
Nebraska's immigration court has the longest waits in the country, averaging 839 days — dwarfing the national average of 589 days, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a nonprofit watchdog at Syracuse University.
Nebraska's wait times shot up 55 percent in the past three years as the courts have become increasingly clogged. The number of backlogged deportation cases in Nebraska more than doubled — from 2,300 in 2007 to 5,285 in 2012, before dipping to 4,700 now.
Nearly half of the immigrants awaiting hearings are from Mexico, a third are from Guatemala, and 12 percent are from El Salvador, according to TRAC. The number of immigrants from Guatemala has increased in the past four years — from 1,094 to 1,483 — while the number from Honduras has spiked to an all-time high of 231.
And while the number of undocumented children swamping the southern U.S. border has spiraled into a national story recently, immigration statistics show the problem has been growing for several years.
The backlog of juveniles in Nebraska's immigration court hovered around 40 to 50 from 2005 to 2011, but that number shot up to 127 in 2012 and to 200 last year, according to TRAC's court data. The data also shows only about 19 percent of the children are sent back home.
Part of the reason wait times are so long in Nebraska is because only two judges handle the caseload. Some of the $3.7 billion that President Barack Obama wants Congress to approve would beef up the immigration courts and speed up the deportation process, including $46 million to hire some 40 immigration judges nationwide.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said on a radio show Monday the recently discovered wave of 200 children placed in Nebraska could wait two to three years for a deportation hearing. But Omaha immigration lawyer Amy Peck said the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review has prioritized the juvenile cases so they'll be handled faster than usual.
She and other immigration attorneys have volunteered to represent the undocumented children who have been placed in Nebraska.
"These children are fleeing violent conditions in their own country," she said. "This isn't an immigration issue that we should be using for political fodder."
She's incensed by the governor's demands for information about the children to ensure no tax dollars are spent on them. She said most of the kids are probably living with relatives who pay taxes.
"Quite frankly, I find that incredible that our public officials would be concerned about things like the cost of 200 kids that are going to live with their parents," she said. "I find what they're saying to be appalling when we are facing a humanitarian crisis as a country."
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