A balding and bearded Jamaican man trains his eyes on the table in front of him, nervously shaking his leg.
He’s miles from home in a lonely courtroom. And in the eyes of immigration authorities, he’s worn out his welcome.
“My job,” the judge says, “is to decide whether you will be allowed to stay.”
The odds are slim.
This is the toughest immigration court in the continental United States.
Hundreds of miles north in the nation’s capital, bands are about to march in the Inauguration Day parade. Donald Trump is getting ready to kick off his presidency with a pledge to put America first. Cheering crowds are lining up to watch.
But there’s no fanfare Friday at this 1,900-bed immigrant detention center in rural Stewart County, Georgia, about 120 miles southwest of Atlanta.
In Courtroom #3, behind two barbed wire gates and three locked doors, Judge Saundra Arrington is getting ready to ask the man before her a methodical list of questions.
Rows of benches are empty. The air conditioning hums. The guard’s jacket rustles as she paces the room.
The judge says it’s time to begin.
’Is there anything special about today?’
“Why do you want to stay in the United States, briefly?” the judge asks.
The 51-year-old Jamaican, who immigrated when he was 8 years old, pauses for a moment. “It’s the only place I know.”
An appeals court has ordered the judge to evaluate whether the man is mentally competent. If not, a court-appointed attorney could help him make his case. CNN is not identifying the man because of the nature of the court proceeding.
In court the judge peppers him with queries about his employment history, his family and his two felony drug convictions.
“Do you know what date it is?” Arrington asks.
“January 20, 2017,” the man replies.
“Is there anything special about today in America?” the judge continues.
The man looks back at her blankly.
“Is it a holiday?”
A crush of cases
Trump has vowed that deporting criminals will be a top priority of his presidency.
But as he pushes to make his campaign promises a reality, the immigration court system could be a significant stumbling block.
The country’s 58 immigration courts are already dealing with a growing crush of cases. The backlog grew to more than half a million last year.
For years, the leader of the immigration judges union has warned that the overburdened system doesn’t give them enough time or resources to sort out complex cases – noting that the consequences of a wrong decision can be dire.
It’s like handling death penalty cases, she says, in traffic court settings.
So far this fiscal year, more than 90% of the cases decided in the Stewart Immigration Court have ended with a deportation order. Only a small immigration court in Guam has sent back a higher percentage of people, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks and analyzes immigration court decisions.
’I just messed up’
On this day in the Stewart Immigration Court, the judge’s questioning lasts for nearly an hour.
“Tell me about your mental condition,” she says.
“I hear voices,” the man tells her, “and sometimes, I might be in a conversation, and I hear something else. I answer. I see things – spirits, demons, dead people.”
Medication and psychological treatment have helped, he says.
The judge looks concerned. She asks him if there’s anything else she needs to know.
“I just messed up. I need a second chance,” he says. “They say America is a second chance.”
The judge says she’s heard that, too.
She tells him she’ll begin the process to get him a lawyer to help with his case. It could be lengthy, she says, and could mean he’ll have to spend more time in detention.
It’s worth it, he tells her, for a chance to stay.
Outside the courtroom, a guard and an interpreter are getting ready for the next case to start.
They glance up at the waiting room wall.
Framed pictures of President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch hang just a few feet above the day’s court docket.
Next week, the interpreter says, they’ll be looking at a portrait of President Trump.