Immigration cases moving east
The decision to close the Bradenton court and detention facility and transfer services inland is meeting opposition from both sides.
By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published June 7, 2006
BRADENTON - A bailiff handed the defendants a white form as they finished pleading their cases before U.S. Immigration Judge Gail Padgett.
"NOTICE," the form read. "All hearings after June 9 will be moved to the Orlando Immigration Court."
The implications go beyond a simple change of address. There will be no U.S. immigration court on Florida's west coast after the Bradenton court closes its doors Friday.
The detention facility in Bradenton is also closing, which leaves only one facility reserved for immigrants in Florida: the Krome Detention Center in Miami, which critics say is already overcrowded.
The news has united people on both sides of the heated battle over immigration laws. Advocates for immigrants say forcing them to drive to Orlando places an unfair burden on people who already have limited means of transportation. Also, because Orlando's docket is so crowded, cases that would typically take months to decide may take years, they say. Some cases are already being scheduled for 2008.
Those who favor stricter immigration control are also outraged. They say closing detention centers increases the chances illegal immigrants will be released while they await court hearings.
"If we're supposed to be going along the route toward mass detention, why would you want to close a single facility right now?" asked Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C.
Like other immigration courts, the one in Manatee County heard various kinds of cases. Illegal immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings appeared here, as did those awaiting approval of their application for legal status.
Manatee County has allowed the federal government to use its downtown jail and office space for the past decade at a cost of $10-million per year, said David Rothfuss, deputy county administrator. Immigrants were also housed at a detention facility near the city's port, he added.
Earlier this year, officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contacted the county to cancel the contract because the facility no longer fits their needs, Rothfuss said.
The remaining inmates will be sent to Miami before the 350-bed Bradenton facility closes June 26, he said.
The timing was fortuitous for the county because it is constructing a new judicial center and needs more space, he said.
"We both recognized that while the arrangement worked well, because of a change in circumstances here, we need to use the facilities for our own inmates," Rothfuss said.
Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the Miami field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said she could not comment on why the court and the detention facility were closed.
But Gonzalez said it's not unusual for the federal government to transfer detainees between facilities across the country based on space needs. Also, the overall number of beds for immigrants will increase from 20,800 to 27,500 by fiscal year 2007 if President Bush's budget is approved, Gonzalez said.
Tampa immigration lawyer John Ovink said the decision to close the court will be disastrous for the men and women who are struggling to win citizenship.
"We're going to be transferring nearly 2,000 cases to Orlando," Ovink said. "This is going to extend the waiting time to three or four years for some cases."
The two immigration judges who served in Bradenton will be transferred to Orlando, said Charles Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. They bring with them 1,700 cases, in addition to the more than 8,000 pending cases in Orlando.
With a rapidly growing population to serve, a logjam is inevitable, Ovink said. Evidence could be lost, and witnesses may move. For those petitioning for asylum in the U.S., political circumstances could change, Ovink said.
"I'm outraged on behalf of the immigrants, their families and their witnesses," he said.
Lourdes Mesias, a supervisor with Lutheran Services Florida, which offers assistance to newly arrived immigrants, said the move will be burdensome for many clients.
"Now they're going to have to drive all the way to Orlando," Mesias said. "They're going to have to spend money on gas. Some don't have any means of transportation."
The decision doesn't make sense from an enforcement standpoint, Stein said.
Florida has the third-largest population of illegal immigrants behind California and Texas, according to a study done by the Pew Hispanic Center. Florida was home to 800,000 illegal residents in 2005, the study said.
Illegal immigrants are routinely released due to a lack of space and those who are released aren't likely to show up for court hearings, he said.
Less than a month ago, President Bush announced an ambitious, $1.9-billion proposal aimed at stopping the flood of illegal aliens. Stein said the closing of the Bradenton facility doesn't fit with that plan.
"Somebody needs to explain to the average American, where's the plan to actually step up deportation?" Stein asked. "This is typical of what we've seen from this administration."
Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.