‘Remain in Mexico’ cases ‘overwhelm’ San Diego-based immigration court
SAN DIEGO — The San Diego immigration court has been overwhelmed by the number of additional cases local judges are hearing under a Trump administration program that returns asylum-seekers to Mexico while they wait for hearings in the U.S.
Normally, asylum-seekers coming to the California border would be distributed to immigration courts across the country, either because they would be held somewhere in the federal government’s national immigration detention system, or because they would be released to reunite with family and friends already in the U.S.
Now, the increasing number of people picked for the administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, known widely as the “remain in Mexico” program, across the California border are all being sent to immigration court in downtown San Diego.
“Other than wallow through it, I don’t know what we can do,” said immigration Judge Lee O’Connor shortly before walking out of his courtroom at 6:21 p.m. one evening last week after hearing a string of MPP cases. Court staff, including security, had left the building long before.
Immigration judges are already working under pressure from performance quotas set by the Trump administration to reduce the immigration court backlog, which has grown nationally to nearly 900,000 cases, according to data from the Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University.
The San Diego court has more than 5,700 cases pending, up from 4,692 cases in fiscal 2018, a 22.4% increase. Nationally, the backlog has grown about 16.2% in fiscal 2019.
“This is a reflection of the constant double speak we’ve been highlighting. The agency has internally conflicting priorities,” said Ashley Tabaddor, speaking in her capacity as head of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “It creates chaos.”
On a given day, three of San Diego’s seven judges generally have afternoons full of MPP cases. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 82 people were scheduled to appear before three judges, 28 of those before O’Connor.
“The judges have no control in terms of how many cases are being scheduled,” Tabaddor said.
Border officials who initially receive migrants either requesting protection at a port of entry or after they’re apprehended crossing illegally are responsible for scheduling the first court appearance for returnees.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment.