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S.F. Immigration Court fast-tracking cases in what critics say call a deportation conveyor belt

A San Francisco immigration judge took less than an hour on Tuesday to order 23 people deported. But none of the immigrants was present and it’s unclear whether they knew about the hearing — even as they were deported for missing it.

The proceedings are part of a recently enacted effort the San Francisco Immigration Court says it’s undertaking to find immigrants it loses track of. Instead, advocates say the court has set up a deportation conveyor belt, one that fast-tracks removal orders before immigrants can make their case to stay in the country.

The practice appears to have started this summer, when immigration attorneys became aware of a subset of hearings being scheduled for immigrants whose mail was being returned as undeliverable. The court was notifying immigrants of the hearings by sending mail to the same incorrect addresses, practically ensuring few would show up.

In immigration law, not showing up at a hearing is enough to be ordered deported on the spot, in what’s known as an “in absentia” order of removal.

According to court data reviewed by The Chronicle, as many as 173 people were given deportation orders because of such proceedings in August and September — a nearly ninefold increase from the 20 similar orders given the previous seven months combined.

ACLU of Northern California attorney Sean Riordan, who has been tracking the issue, compared the situation to a criminal proceeding where, if a defendant didn’t show up for a routine step, the judge declared them guilty with limited ability to challenge the verdict. What’s more, he said, the court scheduled the proceeding expecting the defendant not to show.

“Our society would not tolerate that, it’s just grossly unfair, and we shouldn’t tolerate something similar happening in the immigration courts,” Riordan said. “It’s especially problematic that the San Francisco Immigration Court is spending significant time and resources to obtain so many removal orders through a special docket in cases where they know people will not be able to appear for their hearings.”

At this time, the effort appears limited to the San Francisco court, one of 70 such venues nationwide that hear immigrants’ cases. But advocates fear other courts may see how many cases the San Francisco bench has closed through in-absentia orders and follow suit, saddling scores of immigrants with unknown deportation orders. The immigration court system is run entirely by the Department of Justice, which also employs the judges.

The Justice Department defended the practice as lawful and suggested it was more widespread than advocates realized, saying immigration courts have long created such dockets for returned mail in the name of efficiency.

“Immigration courts throughout the country create dockets in ways most appropriate for each court’s caseload,” spokesperson Kathryn Mattingly said in a statement to The Chronicle.

Data provided by the Justice Department showed a stark jump in in-absentia orders at group proceedings at the San Francisco court starting in August. From January to May of this year, there were only one or two such orders per month, up to 14 in June. In August there were 63, and in September there were 110. October’s numbers are probably comparable, as attorneys tracking the docket counted a similar number of scheduled hearings as September, like the one The Chronicle observed on Tuesday.

H.C. holds an envelope with his change of address forms in San Mateo. The form is weeks late because the instructions were in English, a language he doesn't speak.

H.C. holds an envelope with his change of address forms in San Mateo. The form is weeks late because the instructions were in English, a language he doesn’t speak.

Constanza Hevia H./Special to The Chronicle

In courtroom number 20, immigration Judge Susan Phan first considered the seven people who appeared before her despite having wrong addresses on file. Each one clarified their correct address and was given a new court date. Then the judge moved on to a stack of blue case files for which no one presented in court.

Grouping the cases by country, Phan opened and closed each file, in the end ordering 23 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to be deported in what she called “group removal proceedings.” The process took less than an hour.

On Sept. 15, in the courtroom of immigration Judge Ila Deiss, a different scene played out. Before the judge sat several immigrants whose notices were returned as undeliverable. Judge Deiss profusely thanked each for attending.

“If you didn’t show up today you could have been ordered removed,” Deiss told one teenager.

When Deiss moved on to the rest of the docket, cases in which no one was in court to answer, she scoured each application for phone numbers — which she then called from the bench. In one case, the man who was supposed to be in court told her that he was told his next appointment wasn’t until 2022. “Phew!” Deiss exclaimed, rescheduling him for January.

When phone numbers didn’t pan out, Deiss searched the internet. “I like to google addresses to see if it was something in the way it was written,” she explained. But in the few cases in which she could not find a working number, nor clarify the address, she entered an order of removal, in absentia.

The use of the “returned notice” hearings have alarmed advocates because the Biden administration has continued to emphasize a desire to cut down on an immigration court backlog that is nearing 1.5 million cases, according to a tracking database housed by Syracuse University. Though Biden says he wants a fair and humane immigration system, he has also embraced tactics used by the Trump administration to expedite deportations of new migrants and to turn away tens of thousands of people at the border.

Attorneys who have been tracking the hearings say they know of clients who are regularly going to their check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and likely have their correct addresses on file. But ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, does not update addresses automatically with the immigration courts, a division of the Justice Department, an arcane feature of a system where one government agency employs the prosecutors and a sibling department employs the judges.

Attorney Milli Atkinson, program director at Immigrant Legal Defense, said the address change requirements are especially onerous for non-English-speaking immigrants. “It’s a huge bureaucracy and it’s an outdated system,” Atkinson said.

For those navigating the process, understanding exactly what is required of them to stake a claim to stay in the country can be confounding. Many are fleeing brutal gangs or gender-based violence and believe their lives are at stake if they’re deported.

H.C. walks into a San Mateo post office to send his change of address forms to the Office of the Chief Counsel of San Francisco.

H.C. walks into a San Mateo post office to send his change of address forms to the Office of the Chief Counsel of San Francisco.

Constanza Hevia H./Special to The Chronicle

H.C. showed up to Judge Deiss’ courtroom in mid-September despite his mail being returned for an invalid address. (In keeping with its policy on anonymous sources, The Chronicle is identifying H.C. only by his initials because he fears violence from the gangs he fled in Guatemala.)

He had moved to the next apartment and his neighbor had passed on the notice, H.C. told the judge. She thanked him for coming.

There was no interpreter available for H.C.’s primary language, the Indigenous Poqomchi, so he communicated in limited Spanish. He was handed a notice in English with his next court date and instructions to change his address with the court if he moved.

When The Chronicle reached him a month later, H.C. had had no luck finding an attorney and was just filing his change-of-address form, weeks late. He didn’t know any English speakers to help him, he said. He wondered why the judge or a clerk couldn’t have entered his new address into the system while he was in court.

Maria did not change her address with the San Francisco court and was ordered deported in absentia last month. The Chronicle is only identifying Maria by her first name because she now has a deportation order and fears imperiling her case further by speaking out.

In June, Maria arrived at the Bay Area home of a relative with her two small children. She said ICE officers installed an app on her phone and every eight days she receives a notification that prompts her to take a selfie and send it in — a virtual ICE check-in. She has fully complied, she said.