Thousands of immigrants seek asylum in Charlotte court. Nearly all will lose.

Charlotte N.C.- “Stand up and raise your right hand,” Judge William Riggs said.

He looks expectantly at a Central American man in front of him, who’s wearing headphones to listen to the Spanish interpreter to the left of Riggs. Before she finishes translating, Riggs raises his own right hand to demonstrate the action.

After the man takes an oath, a baby, in the wooden benches designated for observers, starts whining. The mother bounces her knees up and down, attempting to soothe the child.

The immigrant’s lawyer explains his claim, and at one point, Riggs rests his chin in his hand.

It’s about 9 a.m., and this is the first of dozens of asylum cases he’ll hear that day. Once the lawyers finish, he either assigns a later individual hearing or orders the respondent removed from the country.

All of this takes place in Charlotte’s immigration court, located in a mundane office building in east Charlotte. There isn’t a sign outside to identify it, and once inside, you have to take a rickety elevator to the fourth floor — just three floors above an immigration law firm.

That’s where anyone in the Carolinas has to go to claim asylum, and its four judges are some of the strictest in the country.


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Some Immigrants Choose Between Food Stamps and a Green Card


Lourdes Juarez has lived in North Carolina since 2000, working part-time to help children with disabilities improve their motor skills. Originally from Mexico, she is now a lawful permanent resident of the United States with plans to apply for citizenship.

After bouts of pancreatic and liver cancer left her struggling with medical debt, she learned that she qualified for Medicaid, the government health program for low-income people. But she had a nagging concern that accepting government benefits would affect her chances of gaining citizenship. She had heard rumors to that effect among her friends and in the news.

Juarez’s fear reflects the growing sense among immigrants that they should avoid public programs, which also include food stamps and certain housing programs, in case they count against their ability to stay in the country permanently. In December, Juarez called the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, which reassured her that her citizenship would not be affected if she enrolled in Medicaid. Only then did Jaurez relax and sign up.

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