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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Backlogged courts and years of delays await many migrants

Migrants wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after entering the U.S. from Mexico in San Diego, May 11, 2023.

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs

President Joe Biden’s attempt to deal efficiently with a new surge of migration following the end of Title 42 pandemic restrictions has refocused attention on a severe shortage of judges, a result of long-standing neglect that has overwhelmed the immigration court system with a backlog of more than 2 million cases.

The court system is riddled with yearslong delays and low morale as a workforce of about 650 judges struggles to keep up with the volume of immigration cases, leaving immigrants who have long lived illegally in the United States in limbo.

The bottleneck shows how the challenges of dealing with a surge in immigration do not end at the southern border. Even as scrutiny has focused on how Border Patrol agents will manage crowds of migrants, public officials and immigration experts say that bolstering the number of immigration judges is crucial to reforming the system.

Biden has made some progress — hiring more than 200 judges since he came into office — but is still falling short on his campaign pledge to double the number of immigration judges. Some of the judges will be working seven days a week for a time while the administration confronts the new surge, according to the Justice Department.

Eliza Klein, who left her position as an immigration judge in Chicago in April, said the latest increase in illegal border crossings will strain the understaffed workforce as it prioritizes migrants who crossed recently.

That will leave some older cases to languish even longer, she said.

“This is a great tragedy because it creates a second class of citizens,” Klein, who started working as an immigration judge in the Clinton administration, said of those immigrants who have been waiting years to resolve their cases. The oldest case Klein adjudicated had been pending in the court for 35 years, she said.

“It’s a disgrace,” Klein said. “My perspective, my thought, is that we’re not committed in this country to having a just system.”

While crowds of migrants continued to seek refuge in the United States after the lifting of Title 42, U.S. officials said the border remained relatively orderly. Still, about 10,000 people crossed the border Thursday, a historically large number, but that dropped significantly to about 6,200 Friday.

Tens of thousands of migrants continued to wait in makeshift camps on both sides of the border for a chance to request sanctuary in the United States. The administration remained concerned about overcrowding; Border Patrol held more than 24,000 migrants in custody Friday, well over the agency’s maximum capacity of roughly 20,000 in its detention facilities.

The backlog of immigration cases grew to 1 million in 2019 during the Trump administration, but it has since increased to more than 2 million cases, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The average time to close an immigration case is about four years, according to the database. But some judges say they have cases that have been pending for more than a decade.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this week that the backlog was a “powerful example of a broken immigration system,” as he pleaded for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.

In his 2023 budget request, Biden requested funding to hire 200 more judges. Congress appropriated funds for only an additional 100 judges, for a total of 734 positions. The government is still working to fill the slots.

Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said that to truly address the backlog, the Biden administration would need to do more than simply hire more judges. She said that the government should increase funding for better technology and bigger legal teams, and that Congress should reform the nation’s immigration laws.

“I don’t think the United States has ever treated the adjudication for any immigration benefit as a priority for its immigration policy,” said Cristobal Ramón, an immigration consultant who has written for the Migration Policy Institute and the George W. Bush Institute.

The Title 42 border restrictions, enacted by the Trump administration, allowed border agents to rapidly turn away migrants without providing them a chance to apply for asylum, on the grounds that it would prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Now that the restrictions have been lifted, many migrants will once again be able to apply for asylum by securing an appointment through an app or by crossing and convincing an immigration officer that they have a credible fear of persecution at home. Regardless, they will probably wait for years in the United States before getting a resolution in their case.

Typically, after migrants cross the border, they are questioned by an asylum officer to determine if they have a credible fear of persecution at home. After meeting the standard, many are released into the United States and wait years until they are heard in court.

As president, Donald Trump derided the American asylum program, saying migrants fleeing poverty and corruption were part of a “scam” and a “hoax.” As he sought to curb illegal and legal immigration, Trump imposed a quota of completing 700 cases a year.

The union representing the nation’s immigration judges said that quota came at the expense of due process.

The union filed a labor complaint against Trump’s Justice Department after the agency’s executive office for immigration review sent court employees a link to a blog post from a white nationalist website. The post included antisemitic attacks on judges.

Biden removed the Trump-era quotas on immigration judges when he came into office and in 2021 instituted a system to try to streamline the processing of asylum cases.

The Biden administration placed about 110,000 cases involving new arrivals on a dedicated docket, with the aim of finishing them within a year. About 83% of those cases were closed, but just 34% of the migrants found representation, according to the Syracuse database. Migrants have the right to an attorney, although the government is not required to pay for legal representation. Only 3,000 of the migrants were granted asylum.

Klein now fears her former colleagues will once again be forced to hurry through dozens of cases at a time.

“You’re being treated like all you’re doing is numbers. You’re just finishing a certain number of digits per day,” Klein said. “There has been a significant drop-off in the ability to take pride in your work.”

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