DONNA, Texas (Border Report) — Many migrants who are being processed at a temporary detention facility in Donna, Texas, are being discharged without full information about their upcoming immigration court hearings, and that could prevent them from showing up to court, several Texas lawmakers said after touring the facility earlier this week.

Specifically, migrants are being released from detention facilities with Notice to Appear documents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that fail to list the date and location and time for their upcoming court hearings, lawmakers say.

A redacted copy of a Notice to Appear document issued by U.S.
Department of Homeland Security is shown above. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report.)

Lacking the proper information can trigger a host of problems including migrants failing to appear for their mandated hearing, which could lead to a judge ordering their immediate deportation. It also leads to wasted time in federal immigration courts, which are currently backlogged by 1 million cases nationwide.

“The vast majority of the Notice to Appear documents that they get don’t have dates on them and so it’s very hard for these immigrants to know, for these people, for these families, to know when they’re supposed to appear” in court, Texas State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said Thursday after she and 10 other lawmakers from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus toured the Donna Holding Facility.

Migrants who are charged with unlawful entry into the United States and are released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are given papers allowing them to stay in the country until their deferred adjudication proceedings. In return, the migrants promise that they will appear in immigration court. If they fail to appear, a federal immigration judge most likely will issue an immediate deportation order to have them removed from the country.

But lawmakers told Border Report that if they fail to appear because they were not aware when and where to go for their court hearing, then that isn’t fair and the system needs to be fixed.

“They could be convicted because they didn’t appear and now it becomes a horrible process for that individual,” Texas State Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, caucus secretary said. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen. That people do have due process; that they are given a date and a time to appear.”

Falling through the cracks

Martinez’ district includes Donna, Texas, where this temporary processing facility erected on a field next to the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge just opened in early May. The uninsulated two tent structures currently house about 700 migrants but can house 2,000. A third tent is being built to hold 1,000 single adult males and is expected to open in a couple of weeks.

Martinez said that too often the Trump Administration likes to complain that migrants purposely fail to appear in immigration court, despite their promises to do so. But the lawmaker says it’s not always their fault, because if they are discharged from the detention facility without all of the information then it often becomes very difficult for them to later ascertain where and when they should appear for their court proceedings.

“They fall off and they don’t appear at the court, so when you hear ’90 percent of people don’t appear in court,’ well a lot of it has to do because of a Notice to Appear (issued) without a date and a time,” Martinez told Border Report.

We want to make sure that doesn’t happen. That people do have due process; that they are given a date and a time to appear.”

Texas State Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco)

1 million backlogged immigration cases

With over 1 million immigration cases currently pending, the average wait time for a court hearing is over 900 days — that’s two and a half years, according to Transactional Access Records Clearinghouse of Syracuse University, which tracks court cases. A lot can happen during that time, and immigration lawyers say migrants fall through the cracks when court information is finally sent to them at a location where they no longer reside.

Lacking significant grasp of the English language, and the complicated American court system, migrants often don’t know who to call or what to ask.

“The Administration and the restrictions all say well if we release them on their own recognizance or give them bond that ‘no one ever shows up,’” said Charles Foster, a Houston immigration lawyer who served as President George W. Bush’s senior immigration policy adviser during his 2000 campaign. But “they’re not showing up in part because they’re not actually getting the notice.”

Foster, who was founding chairman of the State Bar of Texas Immigration and Nationality Law Section and a board member, and past national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, added that faulty Notice to Appear documents issued “is not uncommon.”

“They will issue the Notice to Appear and leave it blank and say “At a date and place to be determined” and they’re doing that because they (federal officials) are in a hurry. The immigration schedule time and place is not clear to them,” Foster said.

The second page of a redacted Notice to Appear form is shown above. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report.)

Currently being debated is whether it is better to hold migrants in detention facilities — which are crowded and some migrants have even died in custody — for extra days or weeks while court schedules are fully ironed out, or to release migrants with insignificant court information and hope they will persevere to get the information and show up on time.

Foster said migrants who missed court dates and hire lawyers can often get removal orders reversed, by showing they did not receive the court information. But U.S. immigration courts do not supply lawyers to migrant defenders. And so only migrants who are able to hire a lawyer will usually win on these points, Foster said.

“So often when that person has legal representation, they will challenge the sufficiency of that order on the grounds that the alien did not receive the notice,” Foster said. “But for many, they won’t be able to raise that issue they’ll simply be removed.”

Aside from the effect missing a court date has on a migrant, it also adds to the backlog of the U.S. immigration courts. With less than 400 federal immigration judges nationwide, their time is precious and valuable. Every minute spent in court waiting for a defendant is a minute that another immigration case could be heard and processed.

Border Report reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment on this story but did not receive a callback.

For more information on the crowded U.S. immigration courts, please read this Border Report explainer piece.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at