Priscilla writes in an article that also contains quotes from highly respected DC area immigration practitioner Dree Collopy (emphasis added in below excerpt):
“Responding to the 2014 migrant wave, the Obama administration temporarily redirected immigration judges to the southern border to preside over removal proceedings and bond hearings, and review whether any individuals’ claims of fear of persecution were credible. Immigration cases being heard in other parts of the United States had to be put on hold, said Jeremy McKinney, an attorney and board member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The surge was the first time we saw a deployment of immigration judges to the border, resulting in non-detained dockets in the United States getting much worse,” McKinney said, referring to cases that do not require detention. “That situation already put a strain on the interior immigration courts.”
The Justice Department, which hires judges for immigration courts, was also tied up by the budget sequester from 2011 to 2014, so there weren’t enough judges to try cases, he added. Over time, the backlog grew from around 327,000 cases at the end of the 2012 fiscal year to half a million in 2016.
Judge Paul Schmidt, who was appointed in 2003 by Attorney General John Ashcroft, had around 10,000 immigration cases pending when he left his job last year. “When I retired, I was sending cases to 2022,” he told me. Schmidt, who primarily served in the Arlington Immigration Court in northern Virginia, was assigned to those not considered a priority—say, people who had traffic violations. The current national backlog, Schmidt said, largely consists of cases like the ones he handled.
The Trump administration has taken steps that could quicken the courts’ work. For one, ICE officers can now deport someone immediately, without a hearing, if they fit certain criteria and have lived in the United States for up to two years. Under the last administration, that timeline was up to two weeks, and the individual needed to be within 100 miles of the border.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also announced, in a speech on the Arizona-Mexico border, that the Department of Justice will add 125 immigration judges to the bench over the next two years: 50 this year and 75 in 2018. He urged federal prosecutors to prioritize the enforcement of immigration laws. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Sessions said. “The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch-and-release practices of old are over.”
“You have to give Sessions credit for this,” Schmidt said. “He took note of the 18-to-24-month cycle for filling judges and said he was going to streamline that.” The math still doesn’t exactly work out, however. “A fully trained judge, which new judges won’t be, can do about 750 cases a year. So 125 new judges could do fewer than 100,000 cases a year once they’re up and trained,” he said. Factor in the fact that it takes up to two years to become “fully productive,” he said, and altogether, it could take five to six years for the 125 new judges to cut down the backlog.
All the while, new cases will continue to come in as the administration enforces its new, broader policies on deportation. Newly detained individuals will be prioritized over other cases, which will be pushed further down the road. “I think it has a particular impact on asylum-seekers, because the sense of being in limbo really seems to prolong their trauma and their sense of statelessness that they have,” said Dree Collopy, an immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C. And hearing delays can affect asylum-seekers’ credibility, as well as evidence to support their cases: “Over time, especially when trauma is involved, memories begin to fade.” If a person can’t testify until years after entering the United States, “that can obviously cause problems.”
When Collopy first started practicing immigration law in 2007, cases generally would take about a year or two to complete. That’s no longer the case: “Now, it’s taking four or five years on average,” she told me. With the Trump administration rounding up undocumented immigrants quicker than courts can process cases, that delay isn’t likely to shorten.”
Read Priscilla’s full article at the above link.
A “smart” strategy would address the 542,000 pending cases before piling on new priorities. Under a more rational policy, those in the current backlog with equities in the U.S., “clean records,” or only minor criminal histories, could be offered “prosecutorial discretion” (“PD”) and taken off the Immigration Court’s docket to make room for higher priority cases.
However, instead of encouraging more use of PD, which was starting to make some difference by the end of the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration has basically made “everything” a potential “priority.” Moreover, as a “double whammy” the Administration has basically “disempowered” those at DHS who know the Immigration Court system the best, the local ICE Assistant Chief Counsel, from freely exercising PD to take non-criminal cases off the docket.
Ironically, at the same time, DHS appears to be giving line enforcement agents the “green light” to arrest just about anyone who might be removable for any reason. However, the line agents unlikely to understand the limitations of the current Immigration Court system and what is already “on the docket.”
The Immigration Court system is basically the opposite of most other law enforcement systems where prosecutors, rather than policemen or agents, determine what cases will be brought before the court. And, in most functioning court systems, the individual sitting judges control their own dockets, rather than having priorities set by politically-driven non-judicial bureaucrats in other places. It certainly appears to be a prescription for disaster. Stay tuned!
NOTE: In an earlier version of this article I “blew” Priscilla’s name by calling her “Patricia.” My apologies. I’ve now corrected it.