Life in limbo: waiting years for a day in immigration court

In the United States, immigration courts are extremely overloaded, with average wait times stretching into years in some states. Though there are close to half a million cases pending, there are only 250 judges across the country, as I wrote for Quartz this month.

The hundreds of thousands of people waiting for a judge to determine their fate aren't only immigrants who came to the U.S. without documentation or overstayed their visas. There are also legal permanent residents who risk losing the only home they've known.

Justine Lack, 42, of Atlanta, Ga. is one of those anxiously awaiting her day in court.

Adopted from the United Kingdom as a young child, Lack is a grocery store manager and a mother of two. She's been a legal resident for the past four decades. But after she spent several years in Argentina with her then-husband — a stay endlessly delayed by bureaucratic issues and financial difficulties — she now faces deportation.

That’s because green-card holders can’t stay outside the country for long periods of time, a rule Lack said she knew nothing about.

Lack recalled being summoned to a room at the airport when she and her children finally returned to the U.S. from Argentina. She says they were kept there for 14 hours without food, water, or being allowed to go to the restroom. It was then that she discovered her residency was in jeopardy.

Her first immigration court date was scheduled in 2010. But after numerous postponements, she has to wait until November to finally have her case heard — five years later.

Lack said the process has been "emotionally destroying" as well as expensive, in order to pay a lawyer. At one point, she had a brief encounter with a judge, who commented that she speaks "like a Southern girl." Lack told him she'd lived in the U.S. for almost her entire life.

She's trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. She bought a home a few months ago, and is engaged with the hopes of getting married in the fall. But she described a quiet anguish of worrying about her future.

“It almost seems like it’s not real when you tell people what’s going on,” said Lack. “I think about it every single day.”