Long lines at Houston immigration court keep migrants out of hearings


Reinaldo Lafferte Gonzalez spent days practicing how to address a judge, but when the time came for his Wednesday morning immigration court hearing in downtown Houston, he couldn’t even get inside the building.

The slow-moving security line snaked along a covered path and onto an adjacent sidewalk for so long that Lafferte couldn’t see the end of it. His eyes widened in disbelief when he was told it could take up to an hour to get through the metal detectors inside the Mickey Leland Federal Building.

With his hopes of making it in on time dashed, he walked away, panicking. 

Lafferte eventually made it to his hearing, albeit late, but his experience highlights an issue several attorneys said has plagued the facility and the federal agencies it houses for years: long lines are keeping immigrants and their lawyers from high-stakes court appearances, sometimes with dire consequences.

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Critics well acquainted with the bottleneck situation attribute the backup to a rise in passport applicants trying to access another portion of the building. 

Many defendants and lawyers miss or are late for hearings every week because of the lines, which are exacerbated by the volume of visitors to the passport agency and other federal entities inside the Leland building, according to Elaine Veatch Morley, a veteran Houston immigration attorney.

In some cases, judges have ordered people who are waiting in line outside the building to be removed from the country. Such orders can be appealed, but that can cause already lengthy cases to drag on.

“No one should have to go through that when they’re standing downstairs in the line and can’t get access to the building,” Morley said. “It’s just gotten worse.”

To get into the building, visitors must start at the end of a line that often has scores of people already waiting in it. Guards let visitors into the facility in batches through revolving doors, lining them up against a wall in the lobby to explain what can and cannot be brought through the checkpoint.

The process, which Morley said could take up to an hour and a half, has earned a reputation within Houston’s immigrant communities.

Kenia Hernandez, a Cuban migrant who visited the court with her husband, said she was warned several times about the wait times, so the couple arrived more than an hour early for their 8:30 a.m. hearing on Wednesday. It took too long to get through security, and they missed their hearing. So they stayed in the building until the evening resolving their court matters.

“There’s a lot of people who aren’t informed, though,” Hernandez said. “I’ve seen some who leave because they’re scared of being late.”

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The immigration court has been hobbled by the lines since it moved to the downtown federal building in February 2022. It was relocated after a lease dispute between the new owner of the previous space and the General Services Administration, which handles private contracts for the court and other government entities.

Houston attorneys from the American Immigration Lawyers Association have long voiced their concerns about the wait times outside of the downtown Executive Office of Immigration Review courts and have repeatedly asked the building management to provide separate lines for migrants and their legal representatives who are rushing to get to court. 

The lawyers’ organization was told by EOIR officials this wouldn’t be possible, according to internal AILA emails, because the GSA, which manages the building’s security guards, refused to make that accommodation. A committee of staffers representing the other federal agencies inside the Leland building gathered and collectively struck down the proposed arrangement for immigrants and their lawyers.

Officials said the immigration court would eventually move from the Leland building to a permanent space, but representatives from the GSA and the EOIR did not immediately respond to questions about whether that is still the case or if the agencies plan on addressing the concerns with the security line.

Congestion at the downtown court is due, in part, to a surge in passport demand across the United States. The passport agency on the fourth floor of the Leland building was swarmed Wednesday with people trying to get to Mexico, the Bahamas and many, many other places. 

Nearly 22 million passports were issued in the 2022 fiscal year, more than before the pandemic. Texans obtained 1.6 million passports during that span, second behind California’s 2.7 million.

Among the dozens waiting to get their passports on Wednesday was Joe Cisneros III, who took advantage of the long wait to mingle with strangers also there to renew or apply for travel documents.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” the 61-year-old said of the line. “I was here an hour before my appointment, and as I drove around the corner I saw the line and got scared.”

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Regardless of the volume of visitors, the other Houston-area immigration courts in Southwest Houston, Greenspoint and Conroe don’t deal with the same waits, said attorney Peter Williamson. He believes slow security protocols are to blame for the dreaded lines.

“It just seems to me that there’s a lot of inefficiency built in,” he said. “They don’t do it that way in other places. … It’s confined to this particular building.”

Lafferte, who panicked when he realized he’d be late to his hearing, said he begged the security guards to let him through, but they motioned him to the back of the line. He ended up scheduling his next hearing in San Antonio, where he believes there is a better support system for recently arrived migrants.

“I don’t think the officials understand,” he said. “I’m just glad I don’t have to go back again.”


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