Sunday, July 15, 2018

"With 'zero tolerance,' new strain on already struggling immigration courts"

Loren Elliott/Reuters
In a federal courtroom in the border city of McAllen, Texas, two weeks ago, 74 migrants waited as Judge J. Scott Thacker confirmed their names and countries of origin. Tired and nervous, the migrants were wearing the clothes they had been arrested in, translation headsets, and ankle chains that clinked as some of them fidgeted.
After having their rights and potential punishments explained to them, Judge Thacker asked the seven rows of migrants – mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala – how they wanted to plead. “Culpable,” they all answered. Judge Hacker sentenced almost all of them, row by row, to time already served and a $10 fine.
At one point, a man from Honduras separated from his son explained why they had traveled to the United States. Thacker listened, then addressed the whole room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a [specialist] immigration judge; I am not in the immigration system,” he said. “Once you enter the immigration system you can explain your situation to them.”
In immigration court in San Antonio, a few hours north, Judge Charles McCullough is working through cases from the summer of 2017.
Over three hours, he moves smoothly through hearings for a dozen people. One man accepts voluntary departure to Mexico, but then things get complicated. One case has to be postponed because of irregular paperwork. Another sparks a brief debate over whether a US Supreme Court decision last year means it can be thrown out. His final hearing is a mother and two children from Colombia, accused of overstaying their visas. He schedules their next hearing for September.
Staff shortages and an ever-increasing caseload have been problems for years, compounded by successive administrations using the courts to achieve political and policy goals. Cognizant of the burden the immigration court system is under, and the additional strain its stated goal of having zero unauthorized immigration into the US would represent, the Trump administration is going to great lengths to try and streamline immigration court proceedings.
Unlike every other court in the country, immigration courts are part of the executive, not judicial, branch. And the judges who staff those courts are not judges in the common sense, but are employees of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), a wing of the Justice Department. Thus, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has significant authority to reshape how the courts operate.
The changes the Trump administration is engineering, however, have experts and former immigration judges concerned that the immigration court system could be even more burdened.
“All those weaknesses, those weak points, are being highlighted by the measures this administration is taking,” says Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge in Los Angeles and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
“The immigration court system is designed to protect the … founding principles of our American democracy,” she adds. “If you don’t care, then that’s the first brick that’s being taken out of the foundation.”
One example of how that system is being strained further is the estimated 3,000 children still separated from the their families by the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Trump administration officials told a judge Friday they couldn’t comply with a June court order to reunite children under 5 with their families by Tuesday. (Children over 5 are to be reunited by July 26.) At least 19 parents of those children already have been deported without them, according to reports.
“[A] guy that shows up here every day and does this every day has to find hope somewhere.... I’m hoping that maybe the moral outrage associated with what’s happened will be the thing that finally — the catalyst that finally makes us look hard at this immigration system that we all agree needs to be fixed,” Judge Robert Brack of the US District Court of New Mexico told “PBS Newshour.”
720,000-case backlog
On the day he retired, June 30, 2016, Paul Schmidt was scheduling cases through the end of 2022. In a system with a roughly 720,000-case backlog, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Clearinghouse, it wasn’t an unusual situation. The backlog has been steadily growing for decades, something Mr. Schmidt blames on recent administrations using the courts to respond to urgent political crises.

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