ORLANDO, Fla. — The scene outside the Orlando Immigration & Customs Enforcement office has been the same over much of the past week: people young and old huddled along the sidewalk day and night, hoping to be seen by officials inside.
Normally, the system is smooth. People who cross the border illegally, or who are otherwise summoned to an ICE office, attend appointments handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. The immigrants provide updated contact and location information, fingerprints and other documents. In return, ICE officers won’t arrest and deport them, at least without warning.
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For a long time, though, a backlog has been brewing, officials said. ICE and Border Patrol officers do not have systems that communicate well with one another, leading to too many people attempting to show up in a single day.
“They’re able to process 80 to 100 people a day, but 300 or more appointments may be made at the southern border,” Congresswoman Val Demings (D-FL) explained, calling the system “broken.”
Heartbreaking scene outside the ICE building in Orlando. Dozens of people -- including kids -- are waiting overnight for the building to re-open. They're afraid of losing their spot in line & don't trust the appointment system. The building has been overwhelmed since last week. pic.twitter.com/3ZyupPEAts— Nick Papantonis WFTV (@NPapantonisWFTV) May 2, 2022
Attorney Frank Symphorien, managing partner of Symphorien-Saavedra Law, had a different choice of words to describe the broader immigration system: complete chaos.
“For example, immigrants… are waiting for interviews for, you know, three, four, five, six years,” he said. “People who are employed and file to renew their work authorization from Immigration Services do so six months in advance, and yet their extension is only granted for five, six months.”
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Symphorien said a cluster of factors ground the operation to a halt. Decades passed without serious reform while a steady flow of migrants crossed the southern border. The Trump administration threw wrenches into the agencies at many turns in the name of security. Not to mention the added migrants from countries like Afghanistan and Ukraine.
The effects of people camping out for appointments reach far beyond the optics. Some people, having failed to get their documents in time, reported being let go from their jobs. It’s stretching an already thin labor force even more by preventing capable adults who want to earn income from filling some of those roles.
So, what will it take to reform the system? As a whole, Symphorien explained, political willpower to cut through the rhetoric and reduce the problems migrants face as they’re caught in the middle. It will likely mean more manpower and funding, along with less red tape.
On the immediate side, though, he recommended recording the names and phone numbers of everyone left in line when the ICE office closes, calling them back one-by-one for appointments and promising to not deport them in the meantime.
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“Make sure that these people understand that someone is looking at the list, and making sure that if you’re on that list, and you’ve attempted to show up, you’re not going to be targeted,” he said.
ICE officials have not responded to that suggestion. Earlier, they said they were working to clear the backlog and offered to expedite certain applications for a $2,000 fee.
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