US Immigration Courts Brace for Flood of Asylum Claims

U.S. immigration courts, already swamped with a backlog of 1.3 million cases, are ill-prepared to handle a crush of new asylum claims filed by a rising number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, especially children traveling alone, current and former immigration judges told VOA.The sharply increasing number of migrants arriving at the border, including more than 170,000 in March alone, is the highest level since 2006, FILE – Minors lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in Donna, Texas, March 30, 2021.”The backlog has grown,” said Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge and senior legal adviser at the Board of Immigration Appeals. He added there are two ways to handle the situation.”The response to this usually is: Hire more judges. And I think the response should be: Let’s be smarter about who we put into court and how we prioritize the cases and how we handle the cases,” Chase told VOA.The FILE – Migrants are detained by a U.S. Border Patrol agent after crossing the Rio Bravo River to turn themselves in to request asylum in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 29, 2021.A recent TRAC report concluded that even if the administration of President Joe Biden halted immigration enforcement entirely, “it would still take more than Biden’s entire first term in office — assuming pre-pandemic case completion rates — for the cases now in the active backlog to be completed.” Judges to the border Under former President Donald Trump, additional immigration judges were hired. Even so, the backlog of cases grew markedly during Trump’s time in office.Meanwhile, the Trump administration, like the Obama administration that preceded it, dispatched immigration judges to courts near the U.S.-Mexico border, Marks noted.”The prioritization of sending judges to border courts ended up leaving our interior courts underutilized and not able to process the cases that had been pending in the system for long periods of time,” she said.Adding to the congestion was a 2018 directive by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reopen hundreds of thousands of immigration cases the courts had previously closed and rein in judges’ discretion to close future cases. Court staffing and independenceU.S. lawmakers of both parties have long argued in favor of expanding immigration courts to reduce the case backlog. Meanwhile, immigration judges, backed by dozens of immigrant and human rights advocacy groups, are asking Congress to pass legislation making the immigration court system an independent entity insulated from the immigration agenda of any given administration.”Our organization has long advocated that the immigration court system be taken out of the Department of Justice, and restructured, like the Article 1 [federal] tax courts,” Marks said.Aaron Hall, an immigration lawyer in Denver, Colorado, said the immigration court system is currently subject to the whims of whichever party controls the executive branch. But he added that making the courts independent is not enough.  “We still have 1.3 million people in the system,” he said. “There’s no way to both respect due process and push all these cases through in any kind of timely manner. The resolution needs to be immigration reform.”Having an independent immigration court system is better than having [the courts] in the Department of Justice, but what really needs to change is our [immigration] law,” Hall added.While the Biden White House has criticized Trump’s handling of immigration cases, the new administration has yet to announce concrete measures to reform the immigration court system or take a position on calls to make it independent from the Justice Department. 

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