President Donald Trump’s promised crackdown on illegal immigration has resulted in temporary reassignments of about one-third of the nation’s immigration judges, a move judges and activists say is only further backlogging already jammed immigration courts.
Dozens of immigration judges have been sent for weeks-long assignments closer to the U.S. border with Mexico following Trump’s executive order aimed at increasing border security.
Judges have also been assigned to detention centers around the country or made to hear cases via teleconferencing.
More than 100 of the nation’s 326 immigration judges have been mobilized in the administration’s effort, according to the Department of Justice.
The aim: to more quickly decide deportation cases, immigration advocates say.
The moves have forced some reassigned immigration judges to temporarily abandon their dockets and resulted in some people waiting even longer for their day in court.
“Judges very carefully manage their dockets,” said Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “Taking control away from the judges and reassigning them has a very disruptive impact on the court.”
Part of that disruption, Marks said, is growing the country’s backlog of cases. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that the number of pending immigration cases swelled to more than 610,000 last month.
Immigrants waited an average of 672 days for their cases to be resolved in 2016, according to The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Marks says that number will likely grow as more judges face reassignment.
Those gaps can mean more than simply forcing people to wait longer for their cases to get in front of a judge — it can also hurt the strength of a person's case.
Marks said “people complain bitterly” about the wait and dismissed the notion that they favor the gap. In that time minors can become adults, key witnesses can travel to far off distances, and families can be forced to spend years separated.
Department of Justice officials note that the backlog and long waits did not begin under Trump. Average wait times steadily grew during President Barack Obama’s administration including when thousands of Central American children and families fleeing violence in their home countries arrived in the summer of 2014.
The Obama administration requested $3.7 billion from Congress to deal with the backlog, but received only a fraction of the funding.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review is “actively engaged in a multi-front effort to reverse the growth in the backlog of non-detained cases that occurred over the past several years,” according to a spokesman.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in a speech in Arizona in April the administration's plans to hire more immigration judges, as well as streamline the process to get them to the bench to deal with the harsher penalties now being enforced against those found to be in the country illegally, including detaining all adults apprehended at the border.
Another part of that effort includes pressuring so-called "sanctuary cities" to buy into the Trump administration's policies. Sessions made the case in one such city, Philadelphia, during a visit on Friday.
"I urge the city of Philadelphia and every sanctuary city to reconsider carefully the harm they are doing to their residents by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement," Sessions said.
Trump officials point to the drastically lower number of apprehensions along the southwest border as proof the crackdown is working. June saw a 53 percent decrease from one year ago.
But immigration lawyers say those numbers are only more proof that uprooting judges to the border is unnecessary. The Obama administration similarly rushed immigration judges and lawyers to the southern border in 2014 to deal with the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America.
“There was a statistical need for this on a short-term basis,” said Jeremy McKinney, secretary for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “That isn’t the case now.”