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Florida is dealing with a record number of pending immigration cases

A pencil is on top of a form that reads "Immigration."
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Florida is experiencing a record number of immigration court cases.

The state leads the nation with more than 481,000 immigration court cases, as a record number of people cross into the United States. A Tampa immigration lawyer talks about the backlog.

As the number of people at the U.S. border surges and Congress works on a bipartisan immigration deal, court cases continue to mount.

More than 3.2 million immigration cases are pending nationwide, over double the amount three years ago.

Florida tops the nation with 481,376 court cases, a majority of which are asylum cases from Cubans, Haitians and Venezuelans.

The issue is dire, said Tampa-area immigration attorney Milton Toro Marquez.

"The biggest comments I get are, 'what's going to happen? I can't go back, I can't go back,'" said Toro Marquez. "Unfortunately immigration does not work with logic ... the only answer I can give to how long it [cases] takes is, 'it depends.'"

Toro Marquez's caseload has skyrocketed over the years. He has more than a hundred cases to work through currently, and is in the process of hiring another immigration lawyer for his Tampa office.

One way the system may get some relief, Toro Marquez suggested, is by granting Cuban immigrants humanitarian parole, which has typically been done under the Cuban Adjustment Act. The act allows eligible Cuban immigrants to apply for permanent residency a year and a day after coming into the U.S.

But last fall, some Cubans started receiving the I-220A document, which does not grant parole, and, instead, limits individuals to appealing their case, applying for asylum or risk becoming undocumented or deported.

The new form has lead to an increase in the backlog, said Toro Marquez, who added that the decision to use the I-220A form rather than parole has been "arbitrary and discretionary."

"If there was just a decision that I-220A is the same as parole, the majority of Cubans that will come out of the court system and be able to apply for residency, would be a spectacular, extreme relief for the court system," said Toro Marquez.

See more of the interview between WUSF's Nancy Guan and attorney Milton Toro Marquez below.

There's a record number of people crossing into the United States right now. At the same time, immigration courts are struggling to keep up with the number of cases. Can you tell us more about what's happening with US immigration at this moment?

I would say over the past two years, there has been an influx of people entering through the border. Obviously, there has always been the possibility of presenting yourself at the border and requesting asylum, but now it has been just massive. Massive amounts of people are coming through the border.

Florida tops the nation when it comes to the court case backlog. There's more than 400,000 pending cases. Meanwhile, Texas and California are border states and larger in population, but what might be contributing to the backlog in Florida?

A lot of the people who are coming in through the border either have family or friends here, and they're coming from those states straight here. The other thing that I would suggest is because, though there's a rise in price and everything everywhere, and Florida is becoming quite expensive, it is still not as costly as the other states, especially the border states.

What are the main types of cases you're seeing? And can you tell us a little bit about the background of the people you're helping?

The majority of my cases that I handle and that have increased are what we call defensive asylums. They're people who have come through the border, and currently have deportation proceedings. And the majority of my clients are Venezuelan and Cuban.

Can you tell us a little bit about how (your clients) might be feeling as they wait for their case to be resolved and, on average, how long does (a case) usually take?

They are stressed out that they are basically in limbo, they have no idea what's going to happen to them. The biggest comments I get are, "I can't go back. I can't go back. I can't go back. What's going to happen? What's going to happen?"

And the question of how long are the cases taking — that's their main question. Unfortunately, I like to say that immigration does not work with logic. It doesn't mean that because I sent one case first, that it's going to be heard first, it's going to be decided first. So it's a very large range. I can have a case decided in a year, whereas I have cases that, four or five years (later), are still pending.

What do you think can offer some relief to the system and ultimately relief to the people you're trying to help?

I'm going to discuss the the whole Cuban situation that we have going on, that's been going on. There are Cubans that are given a document that's called an I-220A, and there are Cubans that are given a document that's called parole.

With the parole, Cubans under the Cuban Adjustment Act, after a year and a day, can apply to be residents. With the I-220A, they cannot apply to be residents.

The issue that we're facing now is they go through the same procedures, they go through the same inspections, they go through the same exact thing that people with parole do, but are just given a different document.

It's arbitrary, it's discretionary. The officer decides what they get. And I feel — I really feel deep down inside — if there was just a decision that I-220A is the same as parole, the majority of Cubans that will come out of the court system and be able to apply for residency would absolutely be a spectacular and extreme relief for the court system.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.