Sessions announces revamp of immigration law system. Will it help?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a plan Tuesday to add more immigration judges to the courts, a move that many call long overdue. But some worry that an uptick in immigrant detention will keep a case backlog in place.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Attorney General Jeff Sessions shakes hands with US Customs and Border Protection officers as he tours the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Ariz., Tuesday. Mr. Sessions announced making immigration enforcement a key Justice Department priority, saying he will speed up deportations of immigrants in the country illegally who were convicted of federal crimes.

While President Trump’s promises to crackdown on illegal immigration have put his administration at odds with immigrants and their advocates, a new Justice Department policy could bring additional resources to an overtaxed legal system burdened with a backlog of cases.

At a Tuesday visit to the US-Mexico border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for a revamping of the immigration law system, including an $80-million plan that would add 75 additional teams of judges to immigration court system.

That, officials hope, would boost the speed of case processing and subsequent deportations, which have lagged for years as a backlog of more than 540,000 cases have built up. Today, the average detainee might wait 677 days for a hearing, leading officials to go around the court system in some cases, opting to expedite the deportation and send immigrants back to their countries of origin without a day in court.

Immigrant advocates have long decried the backlog of languishing cases that leave hundreds of thousands of nonviolent immigration violators, including asylum seekers, locked in detention centers or floating in an uncertain legal status. And while the advocates have often called for speedier court processing and additional resources, some still worry that an administration promising roundups of undocumented immigrants could pose further threats to the vulnerable communities.

“I very much welcome the addition of new immigration judges,” Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center and director of the center's asylum project, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday. At the same time, she adds, “I’m not optimistic that it’s going to solve the problems in the system.”

The backlog follows a move over the past decade to increase the number of immigration enforcement officers, and therefore detainees, without creating a court system that can handle the caseload in a timely manner. As a result, many judges find themselves overworked and shuffled around, lacking the requisite number of clerks and the time necessary to complete the cases, Ms. Koop says.

While new judges are desperately needed to speed up the process, Mr. Sessions also suggested that those courts would keep busy with new orders; the department wants to allocate $1.5 billion to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s budget to further its reach, allowing agents to detain and deport more undocumented immigrants. An additional $300 million would pay the salaries of 500 new Border Patrol agents and 1,000 new ICE agents.

"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."

For some, the crackdown is long overdue. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., says the additional judges, as well as policy changes that will speed up the prosecution of illegal border crossings and focus on expedited removal, will help to reduce the backlog. 

"Everybody does agree the immigration courts need to work more efficiently and quickly," he tells the Monitor. "It’s not just at the back end there’s going to be more judges, but at the front end, there’s going to be fewer people fed into the pipeline to appear before federal judges."

Others hope the expansion could mean that asylum seekers would have their day in court sooner, airing valid claims for refuge before the court and receiving protections. But immigration advocates are concerned that simply increasing the number of judges in order to speed up the process could create additional problems. 

“We want more qualified judges who are able to hear our clients' cases and provide them with their fair day in court,” says Koop. “As long as these are qualified judges, again, we’d be very happy to see the backlogs reduced because that does do real harm to individuals and families who are needing protections.”

But with more undocumented immigrants coming before the court, fewer asylum seekers or families may be able to see a judge in a timely manner.

“More resources for immigration courts and case processing sounds like a good thing for migrants trying to make their way through a system that has had enormous backlogs....," Miranda Hallett, a professor of sociology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, who focuses on anthropology and law, says in an email. "At the same time as he is calling for increased funding, Sessions is also calling for criminal prosecution of increasing numbers of immigrants and using inaccurate language that paints border-crossers as a national security threat – when all evidence suggests that they are not."

[Currently, illegally crossing the border is classified as a misdemeanor. Many so-called sanctuary cities have refused to cooperate with ICE agents seeking undocumented immigrants who have not committed violent crimes, instead focusing on prosecuting violent offenders and keeping peaceful immigration violators out of the court system. 

Under an administration that has promised more roundups and threatened to pull funding from cities with sanctuary protections, Dr. Hallett is skeptical that a system with more judges would favor the immigrant community.

“Under the new crackdown, more and more asylum seekers are likely to be deported back into the very conditions of persecution and violence that caused them to flee for their lives,” she says.]

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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