Watchdog: Deportation cases lagged under Obama
What once took month, took nearly one year to finish
Under the Bush administration, it took an immigration judge less than a month to finish the average deportation case. Near the end of President Obama’s tenure, that time had soared to nearly a year, according to a new report Thursday from the government’s chief watchdog that underscores the immigration mess the previous administration left.
Even worse, the time it took to deport immigrants who weren’t held in custody but instead released into the community on a promise to return jumped from an average of 96 days in 2006 to 535 days in 2015.
The long delays meant not only that undeserving illegal immigrants remained in the U.S. longer than they should have, but it could have ruined cases for those who had a good chance to remain. And even in cases where a deserving immigrant was allowed to remain, they may have suffered long delays in reunifying with family, the GAO said.
All sides — the immigrants, Homeland Security lawyers and the immigration judges themselves — began to ask for more continuances, further delaying the cases.
And with nearly 40 percent of judges at the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) already eligible for retirement, the problems could become even more acute, the GAO said.
“The doubling of the immigration courts’ backlog over the last decade to more than 437,000 cases at the beginning of fiscal year 2015 poses challenges to EOIR in meeting its mission to adjudicate immigration cases by fairly, expeditiously and uniformly administering and interpreting federal immigration laws,” the GAO concluded.
“The effects of the case backlog are significant and wide-ranging, from some respondents waiting years to have their cases heard to immigration judges being able to spend less time considering cases,” the investigators said.
Andrew “Art” Arthur, a former immigration judge who’s now a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a proenforcement think tank, said aging judges and other factors play a role. But he said the chief reason for the spike is Obama administration policies.
Mr. Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty for Dreamers, dubbed DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, created tens of thousands of cases where previously deportable illegal immigrants now had an argument to stay.
And in 2014, with Central American children and families streaming across the border, the Obama Justice Department issued a new memo shifting the priorities for immigration court cases, pushing hundreds of thousands of cases to a lower priority.
Coupled with an overall less strict attitude on enforcement, it created an impression among illegal immigrants that if they could delay their cases long enough they might be able to find a way to stay permanently, Mr. Arthur said.
“There was a general idea that if you kept your case going long enough that some kind of relief would appear for you,” he said.
Mr. Arthur also said immigration judges and Homeland Security’s trial attorneys may have suffered from the same demoralization that Border Patrol and interior enforcement agents and officers suffered under Mr. Obama, believing their hands were tied by an administration uninterested in enforcing the laws.
“You start seeing so many cases that you start to burn out. Why do I have loyalty to my docket if nobody else cares,” Mr. Arthur said.
President Trump has already recognized the problems with the immigration courts and called for both streamlining the process and for hiring dozens of new judges to hear cases.
Perhaps more important is Mr. Trump’s push to crack down on illegal immigrants themselves. Fewer people are being apprehended at the border, suggesting fewer crossers in the first place, and he’s been detaining more illegal immigrants caught in the interior — a key to making sure their cases are heard faster.
“The higher the likelihood that people are going to be detained, the more likely they are to just take an order or removal, just go home,” Mr. Arthur said.
The EOIR is part of the Justice Department. A department spokesperson said they find the backlog they were left “unacceptable,” and said they’re working to solve the situation.
“EOIR is increasing its adjudicatory capacity by hiring more judges, working with its federal partners to make the immigration process more efficient, and ensuring that its resources are allocated in the most effective manner,” the spokesman said. “EOIR is also reviewing internal practices, procedures, and technology in order to identify ways in which it can enhance immigration judge productivity without compromising due process.”