Changes to immigration courts

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is April 10th.

Thank you for joining us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. We’ve reported on the backlog in immigration courts. The number of cases topped 650,000. That was earlier this year, and now it’s even higher. The Trump administration says it is taking a range of actions to address the backlog—like hiring more immigration judges.

EICHER: Ten days ago the administration made a move that stoked controversy right off the bat. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department notified immigration judges that their job performances will be based on how quickly they close these cases out.

REICHARD: This set off a round of criticism. Immigration courts have already been likened to conducting death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.

Here now to discuss is Jacob Monty. He’s an immigration attorney based in Houston. He specializes in immigration and employment law.

Mr. Monty, most of our listeners have never seen the inside of an immigration court, so could you describe what it’s like in there?

JACOB MONTY, GUEST: Well, it’s a government conference room that does look like a typical courtroom, but it’s probably much smaller than something you’ve seen on TV. Maybe holds only maybe 20 people total. There’s a place for a judge, place for the government, place for the immigrant and his lawyer, and then a place in the back for some witnesses. The rooms may not be that impressive, but what gets decided in these immigration courtrooms is very, very important.  Being repatriated to a country like El Salvador where they could be killed by the MS-13 gang or by other criminal elements is a very real risk, so… life and death results are on the line in these immigration courtrooms.

Okay. What would you say are the key drivers of the backlog in cases?

MONTY: Well, we’ve had a huge increase in enforcement actions that began under the Obama era, but it has continued in the Trump era. The popular notion might mean that all of this enforcement action happened only under Trump era, but Obama did a lot of removal proceedings, initiated a lot of removal proceedings against immigrants in his 8 years in office as well. So, you have many more people being charged with immigration violations and yet we have not seen an increase in the number of judges. So, it’s created a huge backlog.

Do you think the Trump administration’s new rules will move us in the right direction to fix these problems?

MONTY: Well, it’s — we do need more funding for immigration judges and that is recognized, I think, by the administration. I think that’s underway, so that’s good, but recently, the administration has proposed evaluating judges on the number of cases they can prosecute or can get off their docket. The problem with that is because people’s lives are at stake, you should not have a rote number of cases assigned or required of a judge. The goal should be the administration of justice, not just how many cases you can clear off the docket. And, at least in almost all the cases that I handle, we’re not talking about newly arrived immigrants or people with no ties to the U.S. In almost all the cases you’re dealing with people that have U.S. citizen spouses, U.S. citizen children, you’re talking about people that have been here longer than 10 years. So they have a great deal of connection to the U.S.

I’ve seen reports that immigration judges feel they already have an impossible job. Their morale is low, they may even issue an order for deportation and it never gets carried out, so what’s the point? How do you think these new rules will be received by these judges?

MONTY: Well, because they’re already overworked, I think it’s not likely to make them feel better. We have a huge backlog of cases but you can’t sacrifice fundamental due process rights of the people that you’re adjudicating I mean, as an immigration lawyer, we need time to cross-examine the government’s witnesses, to present our own witnesses, and sometimes it involves expert testimony on how the removal would affect the U.S. citizen’s spouse or the U.S. citizen’s family members, so it’s not an assembly line type operation. Certainly we’re not saying that the judges don’t need to be efficient. I mean, all the judges I’ve been before are efficient, and they try to move the cases along, but you have to remember that the goal should be administration of justice, not just trying to deport people as expeditiously as possible. 

Okay, very good. Jacob Monty is an immigration attorney based out of Houston, Texas. Thanks for talking to us!

MONTY: Great talking with you. Bye.

(Bryan Cox/ICE via AP, File) In this Feb. 9, 2017, file photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents stand outside a home in Atlanta during a targeted enforcement operation aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminals living in the country illegally.

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