On a summer night in Honduras in 2014, Maribel made a choice: She had to leave her home, with her four young children in tow, or risk being killed. With an eye toward the United States, she began the dangerous journey north and arrived at the US-Mexico border where she claimed asylum.
Nearly eight years later, Maribel, now living in Maryland, is still waiting for the US to decide if she can stay in the country or if she’ll be deported.
Maribel, whom CNN is referring to by her middle name to protect her identity, is among the more than 660,000 asylum seekers in the US immigration system still waiting to resolve their cases. This logjam has bogged down the US immigration court system, leaving hundreds of thousands of people often waiting years for a resolution.
“I expected a change in this country, assistance. But to this day, I haven’t received it,” Maribel said in Spanish.
Since Maribel arrived, she’s lived under Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The backlog has increased under each president. The Biden administration is considering plans to dismiss potentially thousands of cases in immigration court to try to alleviate the backlog facing judges.
Esther Olavarria, a top White House official, said last month that “building blocks are being put in place to identify cases in the immigration court that are not priority cases that can either be administratively closed and terminated.”
Immigration judges – employees of the Justice Department – are charged with following the policies set by each administration and ultimately deciding an immigrant’s future in the US. Those judges face a court backlog that’s almost equivalent to the size of Philadelphia’s population, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks immigration court data.
Last year, the backlog reached nearly 1.6 million cases, with cases climbing more rapidly between October and December, the clearinghouse found. In other words, cases have been piling on faster than judges can keep up, resulting in the largest increase on record last quarter.
Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, describes the situation as a “crisis.” “DOJ has prioritized its law enforcement functions over the immigration courts. The result is bad management, under-budgeting, and a gigantic and growing case backlog,” she told CNN recently.
For those caught in the crosshairs, like Maribel, the wait can be excruciating and leaves immigrants susceptible to policy changes by the Justice Department under different presidents that can throw their whole case into limbo.
‘I prefer to see you far away than dead’
Maribel fled Honduras with four of her children in 2014 to escape years of abuse, repeated rape and death threats by her former partner, who was a gang member, according to the declaration submitted to the court. She tried to seek protection from local authorities, but help never came, Maribel said.
“I was leaving behind my mother, my family. But the words I always remember were those of my mother who told me one morning, ‘I prefer to see you far away than dead,’” Maribel said, her voice breaking as she recalled the memory.
A 2020 State Department report on country conditions in Honduras found that a law criminalizing domestic violence “was not effectively enforced” and that the police failed to process complaints in a timely manner. The report also cited organized crime groups, like MS-13, for committing “killings, extortion, kidnappings, human trafficking, and intimidation of police, prosecutors, journalists, women, and human rights defenders.”
“I asked for help in my country, and they didn’t help me,” Maribel said.
Immigration courts have held that women in Central America facing domestic abuse qualified for asylum. But that abruptly changed when Trump took office, threatening Maribel’s case three years after she made her initial claim.
Maribel had faced hurdles in court before. In 2016, an immigration judge in North Carolina, where Maribel was living at the time, denied her asylum claim, but it was later determined that the denial was because of ineffective counsel, according to her current attorneys who filed a motion to reopen the case.
A policy change under Trump
Under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had authority to set precedent in cases as attorney general, changed long-standing precedent and decided that domestic violence was no longer grounds for asylum, directly affecting Maribel’s case.
By issuing such decisions, the Trump administration “significantly curtailed” asylum, according to the Migration Policy Institute. It especially limited asylum based on membership in a particular social group, which forms the basis for a large share of claims made by Central Americans, according to the nonpartisan policy group.
The immigration judge in North Carolina issued a second denial, arguing that in light of the change made under Trump, Maribel’s claim was no longer grounds for asylum, according to his ruling.
The whiplash is the consequence of what’s routinely become a drawn-out process for the thousands of immigrants seeking refuge in the Unmited States.
“It’s so easy for people’s lives to be upended and moved from one side of the pendulum to the other based on a decision by the attorney general,” said Leidy Perez-Davis, policy director at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, which is representing Maribel.
“She still doesn’t have protection from deportation and protection from being sent back to harm’s way, potentially even death because of this long, drawn-out process,” Perez-Davis said. “It’s getting stuck at every point of the process.”
Under the Biden administration, the Justice Department reversed Sessions’ decision that set a high bar for victims of crime to qualify for asylum by saying that victims must show that their home country was unable or unwilling to assist them and that “the government condoned the private actions.”
Maribel’s attorneys appealed the denial, and they’re still waiting for a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals, which has to decide whether to remand the case back to the immigration court because of Attorney General Merrick Garland’s reversal.
Last week, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California introduced legislation to reform the US immigration court system, including spinning it off the Justice Department to establish an independent immigration court free of political influence.
“I keep having faith in my asylum,” Maribel said. “I keep waiting.”
CNN’s Maria Santana contributed to this report.