Since Candelaria Jacinto was caught by immigration officials more than 18 months ago, she has wondered if her children are going to eat the following day or if they are going to have clean clothes to wear.
"I simply don't have any money," said the Guatemalan native, who still is waiting for her case to be resolved and has not worked since April 2008, when she was arrested during a raid at a Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant.
Of the 100 workers initially arrested for being in the country illegally, 13 still have cases pending before the immigration court, according to immigration officials.
Another 15 are categorized as Immigration and Customs Enforcement fugitives -- they either failed to appear for their hearing or failed to comply with the judge's order to leave voluntarily in lieu of deportation -- ICE spokesman Temple Black wrote in an e-mail. The remaining 72 have left the country, he said.
For workers who've asked for a form of relief in front of a judge, a resolution might take anywhere from a year to several years, depending on the individual case and if there are any appeals, said Terry Smart Jr., an immigration attorney in Memphis who is representing Mrs. Jacinto for free.
"The more (complex) the case, the longer it's going to take for it to come to fruition in immigration court," he said.
But the families who are still here have put themselves in that situation, said Janice Kephart, national security policy director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent organization that does research on the impacts of immigration on the United States.
"They've chosen this route, they came here voluntarily illegally, they worked here voluntarily illegally, and now they've chosen to stay in the process to try to garner an immigration status," she said.
GIVEN ANOTHER CHANCE
Lubia del Cid, whose daughter Kemberly Mendez is being treated for Poland syndrome -- a pattern of physical malformations present at birth -- said it's very difficult because she hasn't been able to work. But at the same time, she's grateful for the medical treatment her daughter is receiving.
"She has improved so much in this time," the mother of five said in Spanish. "There's no way she would get this type of treatment in Guatemala."
Mrs. del Cid, who recently applied for a work permit, still has three teens in Guatemala, but Kemberly is a U.S. citizen who will be 2 years old in January. The little girl recently went through one of several surgeries she needs to separate some of her fused right-hand fingers and eventually insert a plate in her chest because of muscle deficiency.
"Sometimes she looks at her hand and says 'Mommy' and tries to separate her fingers," Mrs. del Cid said.
"I'm just appreciative on behalf of my client that the government is willing to work with us on this case," said her attorney David Elliott. "Whereas removal cases can take many years, in this situation, the fact that they haven't scheduled a hearing is somewhat unique, and I think it's just based upon the fact that Kemberly has medical issues that cannot be addressed in Lubia's home country."
Even before she was arrested in the Pilgrim's Pride raid, Mrs. del Cid faced a deportation order. Immigration agents caught her as she crossed the Texas-Mexico border five years ago.
She was given a notice to appear in court, but because she didn't understand what the notice was, she said she didn't go and missed a deportation hearing.
Immediately after the raid at Pilgrim's Pride, social service and legal organizations from across Tennessee swooped in to help the families financially and with legal representation.
Within six months of the arrests, the help diminished because of a lack of funds, although the support continued to be there, said Melody Bonilla, care manager for La Paz de Dios, one of about 12 organizations that stepped up to help.
But by that time, many of those arrested also had left the country, she said.
"We kept working with those who stayed behind, working with the lawyers representing them, and at this point it's very slow," said Mrs. Bonilla. "They are not coming as frequently, but we are working with a few of them to get all their information for hearings, with translations," among other services.
For Mrs. Jacinto, a widow who can't read or write and has three children ages 7 to 12, the ensuing months have been extremely difficult.
"I don't have any money for the rent or the bills," she said during a recent afternoon, sitting on the porch of a house she shares with a relative of her late husband and that woman's two children. Two pairs of children's pants were hanging from the fence drying.
"I haven't had money to do the laundry in 15 days," she said in broken Spanish. "I hope they will be dried when they go to school tomorrow."
Having grown up speaking a Guatemalan dialect, she speaks very little Spanish and no English.
Her husband's relative was helping her with the rent and paying her to take care of her children, but the woman is also unemployed and can't help anymore, said Mrs. Jacinto, a 40-year-old who came to the United States 13 years ago.
"It's hard not to be caught up in the humanity of these individual cases. There are certainly human issues here," said Ms. Kephart, "but the value of our law is only in it's ability to be followed, and when we become a country (whose) own laws are not important enough to follow, then we are only hurting ourselves in multiple ways."
The time an immigration court case takes to be resolved depends on a number of factors, said Elaine Komis, spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"For example, the alien needs more time to seek legal representation, or the Department of Homeland Security requires more time for preparation," she said. "All that builds time into the case."
The backlog of immigration cases awaiting disposal is steadily increasing, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data gathering organization at Syracuse University.
Since the end of fiscal year 2006, the backlog has grown by 19 percent, the clearinghouse said in a report published earlier this year.
But lawyers representing the arrested workers from Chattanooga say the court in Memphis, which has two judges, has done a good job of scheduling the cases in a timely manner.
"Cases tend to take a little longer in (the immigration court of) Atlanta," said Mr. Elliott, "I think they do a pretty good job with their dockets (in Memphis)."
"(Immigration judges) continue to handle challenging caseloads," said Ms. Komis, "(but) they do an excellent job in adjudicating their cases, (and) take as much time as necessary to ensure fairness in their adjudication."
THE STORY SO FAR
* On April 16, 2008, 100 Chattanooga workers were among almost 300 immigrants arrested in Pilgrim's Pride plants in five states for being in the country illegally.
* The workers faced charges that included identity theft, document fraud and immigration violations.
* The majority of the Chattanooga workers went back to their country of origin, but a handful are still here as their cases move through the legal system.
BY THE NUMBERS
* 231: Number of immigration judges nationwide
* 2: Number of immigration judges in the Memphis court
* 350,000: Number of immigration proceedings nationwide in fiscal year 2008
* 2,844: Number of immigration proceedings in the Memphis court in fiscal year 2008
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review