America’s Most Inefficient Immigration Court Is Set to Improve

A small California immigration court is steeling itself for an influx of deportation hearings.
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A small California immigration court is steeling itself for an influx of deportation hearings.
(Photo: Beth Cortez-Neavel/Flickr)

(Photo: Beth Cortez-Neavel/Flickr)

The small immigration court in Imperial County, California, is arguably the country’s most inefficient. Planted squarely in a county that shares a border with Mexico, it is the only one of its 57 sisters in the country that hasn’t had a permanent sitting judge for over two years.

At a backlog of about 4,000, the Imperial Immigration Court has the second-highest number of pending immigration cases per capita in California (behind only San Francisco). As far as the Department of Justice (DOJ) is concerned, that’s about to change.

A spokeswoman for the DOJ’s executive office for immigration review confirmed to Pacific Standard that the department is in the process of training two soon-to-be immigration judges who, assuming they successfully complete their six weeks of training, will be assigned to Imperial. The department anticipates the trainees, Mark Barcus and Paul Habich, will begin hearing cases there around April 24th.

“I feel overwhelmed. Everyone needs help; everyone is asking for help.”

Other changes are coming. In March, justice officials confirmed the agency would reassign immigration judges to increase their presence at 12 courts around the country. Imperial, alongside San Francisco, was listed among them.

The influx of judges comes amid a maelstrom of immigration enforcement changes on the federal level. In a sweeping memo sent on February 20th, the Department of Homeland Security also announced it would hire 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, revoke immigrants’ protections under the Privacy Act, change its detention forms to make it easier for local law enforcement officers to detain those they suspect are “removable aliens,” and withdraw guidelines for prosecutorial discretion.

Taken together, those efforts mean law enforcement will be better equipped to rapidly process massive quantities of deportations and detentions — both new cases and old. There’s a backlog of over half a million immigration cases across the country, and only about 60 courts (and less than 300 judges) to hear them.

Yanci Montes, a lawyer for the Los Angeles-based immigration resource center El Rescate, notes that those changes will likely mean two things: a decrease in the number of case extensions, or “continuances,” granted, and an increase in the number of immigrants seeking legal representation as their hearings are moved up.

Before President Donald Trump took office, “judges and prosecutors were very flexible as far as agreeing to grant continuances if we were in the middle of gathering documents for an asylum claim,” Montes says. But now, “they’re not giving us the opportunity to be able to work with clients, and I’m seeing it a lot with detainee cases.”

“I feel overwhelmed,” Montes says. “Everyone needs help; everyone is asking for help. Everyone wants to know whether they qualify for asylum. People in the removal proceedings are scared.” Her caseload has more than doubled since the end of January. Instead of the usual 10 families El Rescate admits every Wednesday, she now sees upwards of 25. Her appointments are booked every single day through May.

It echoes testimony given last week by Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez in the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security: “You know what those ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist’ immigrants do every weekend now, under this administration?” he asked. “They go see lawyers.”

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