There’s only one immigration court in Ohio.
It’s part of the 23-story federal courthouse that opened in downtown Cleveland in 2002.
The hopes and fears of immigrants — both with and without legal documentation to be in the United States — are decided in this skyscraper by three judges.
And when immigration attorney Tania Nemer files a new case there, Nemer told an Akron gathering Saturday, the first court hearing is often scheduled for 2020 or 2021.
A slight gasp of surprise rose from the audience at the immigration forum, which was organized by Akron City Council members Rich Swirsky and Marilyn Keith at Akron First Assembly church.
Yes, Nemer assured the crowd of about 100, there’s often a four- or five-year wait to even start a case because of a longstanding backlog.
But that’s not the only wait for people trying to stay in — or get into — the U.S., she said.
If a U.S. citizen wants to bring his family from Syria to escape the bombings and other violence, Nemer said, the legal process can take about 10 years.
And refugees, no longer safe in their home countries, often wait in camps for nine to 18 years before finding permanent homes.
Nemer was one of about a half-dozen speakers brought in by Swirsky and Keith on Saturday to provide information about immigration law and refugees. The council members said they have been fielding questions from constituents amid President Donald Trump’s efforts to change policies affecting both immigrants and refugees, and both said they wanted experts to lay out the facts.
Kara Ulmer, director of World Relief Akron, told the forum there are 62.3 million refugees in the world now, people driven from their home countries to escape war, persecution or natural disasters.
Last year, the U.S. accepted 110,000 refugees, she said.
“It’s like half the population of Akron spread out across the United States,” she said.
Ulmer helped launch World Relief about two years ago and has helped settle about 260 refugees, mostly in North Hill.
To get here, she said refugees first tell their story to the United Nations. Next, they tell their story to the U.S. Embassy and the stories are compared.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, checks their background and biometrics for possible terrorism ties and goes over the refugee’s story again.
“If there’s any kind of fishiness, [a refugee] is out of consideration and officials move on to the next one,” she said. “It’s the most rigorous screening for anyone coming to America.”
Part of Ulmer’s job is picking up refugees from the airport and driving them home to Akron.
“I get to witness the birth of the American dream every time,” she said. “Their eyes are huge.”
Among them was Eka Anthony from the Congo, who arrived in 2015 without speaking English.
On Saturday, he stood at a microphone and shared his harrowing story of life on the run amid ethnic cleansing in near-perfect English.
“I thank you,” he told the group.
Basheer Niazi from Afghanistan spoke next. He earned a Special Immigrant Visa by working as an interpreter for U.S. special forces between 2012 and 2015.
During that time, he was rejected by his own community, he said.
“I sometimes asked myself whether what I was doing was right,” Niazi said.
He would leave the U.S. base by a different gate each night, always worried someone was trailing him and would do him harm.
When he arrived in the U.S., he said that feeling of dread ended.
“I feel proud,” Niazi told the forum. “I was working, not only working for peace in my country, but for peace in the whole world.”