Publication / DecodeDC
March 11, 2017
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Some say relocations are an unhelpful Band-Aid

A Department of Justice mandate will soon relocate immigration judges to detention facilities along the U.S./Mexico border as part of a broad Trump administration push to deport millions of illegal immigrants living in the country.

As Reuters first reported, a letter sent by the DOJ to immigration court judges Thursday asked for 50 volunteers to re-locate to existing detention facilities largely along the U.S./Mexico Border.

According to a source familiar with the DOJ request, the initial round of judges will be deployed for two-week increments to fill space in detention centers with open courtroom space. On March 20, the first round of judges will be sent to courtrooms in Adelanto and Otay Mesa, California, as well as courts in Texas and Chicago.

There is already a second call for volunteers from the DOJ to move to the new courtroom locations already rented or being built close to detention facilities. That group of judges would leave March 27. DOJ has already acquired and built new courtroom space in Otero, New Mexico; Polk, Texas; Jena and LaSalle, Louisiana; and also plans to reopen a courtroom in El Centro, California, the source said.

While the DOJ originally was considering putting judges on shifts running from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., it has since backed off after hearing multiple concerns about the hours and safety, according to the source.

Currently, the countrywide U.S. immigration court system — which handles most immigrant deportation proceedings — maintains a backlog of more than 542,411 cases and the average wait time for a hearing is almost two years, according to January 2017 data from TRAC, a Syracuse University program made possible by the Freedom of Information Act, which monitors the government’s internal databases.

President Trump’s executive order announced last month calls for hiring additional immigration court judges, but it remains unclear how many would be hired and how the hires would be funded.

There are currently 250 immigration court judges located across 58 immigrant courts, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Chief Immigration Judge. Currently there are 73 openings in the immigration judge court and it takes about a year for a position to be filled once it’s first posted, according to Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, and a sitting immigration court judge based in San Francisco.

The new DOJ directive to immigration court judges seems to circumvent the issue of hiring by instead redistributing the current judge pool to areas the White House is deeming high priority. The White House logic seems to be that moving judges to detention facilities would speed up hearing processes since often the facilities are located in rural areas far from immigration courts.

But this change has immigration court judges worried, said Marks who says NAIJ believes the White House logic is mistaken.

“The [NAIJ] is very concerned that this administration does not repeat the mistakes of the past administration by prioritizing cases in a way that creates chaos and dysfunction,” Marks said. “You need to hire more immigration judges, not move judges from existing courts that are overwhelmed by their dockets and already understaffed.”

The Obama administration had previously ordered the DHS to prioritize processing and hearing cases of women and children following a surge of border detentions of families fleeing violence from countries in South America. It has been NAIJ’s opinion that the refocus was unhelpful and misdirected.

Last month, Chief Immigration Judge MaryBeth Keller directed the immigration courts in a memo to refocus their efforts on hearing detainment cases instead of those of children and families seeking asylum.

“The reality is that [Trump’s executive order] could be another epic fail just like the juvenile surge was. They had us surge in place and we didn’t get anymore done,” Marks said.

She and others on the court instead argue for more hiring of judges, a solution she said gets to the heart of the matter.

“I have cases set out till 2022—if you take me away from my docket I may complete the docket at the border area but the cases I left behind may be pushed back three, four or five years,” she said.

But the White House is under intense pressure to fix the problem. The increase of detainments is already adding to the court backlog. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government Thursday over the amount of time individuals are detained before seeing an immigration court judge.

The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of three Mexicans at a San Diego immigration detention center, read that people “routinely languish in detention for two months or longer before they see a judge,” calling the wait excessive and a violation of constitutional rights.

According to the ACLU suit, immigrants in San Diego and Imperial counties wait one to three months for a hearing and estimated 1,500 people are held at the area’s detention facilities on any given day.

“When looking at the DHS memos to detain people the entire time that their cases are proceeding–they are going to see a massive increase in the number of people detained on any given day,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer for the ACLU. “The fact that somebody is a non-citizen doesn’t give the government carte blanche to kick them out of the country without due process. There needs to be a fair hearing about their particular circumstances.”