WASHINGTON –U.S. immigration courts are making a change to focus on deportation hearings for immigrants jailed by the federal government, giving less urgency to cases of children and families who were stopped on the U.S.-Mexico border and released.
Chief Immigration Judge MaryBeth Keller said in a memo Tuesday that the top priority for immigration judges will be scheduling quick hearings for anyone who is detained. That might potentially free up space in an immigrant jail system that is already well beyond capacity, immigration lawyers said.
While immigrants in jail have always been a priority, the Obama administration also had judges focus on children and families stopped on the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to deter more people from coming.
The move comes as President Donald Trump has announced plans to ramp up immigration enforcement and lock up more immigrants. By making the change in the courts, the government will be able to focus more on deporting jailed immigrants to free up room in the detention system.
Amid a wave of tens of thousands of immigrants arriving on the border in recent years, the immigration court docket has grown to more than 533,000 cases. The backlog effectively means that many immigrants may not have a final court ruling for several years.
Immigration lawyers said it’s too soon to know whether cases will move faster or the backlog of jailed immigrants waiting for their day in court will simply swell.
Lauren Alder Reid, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said the immigration courts have always made those cases a priority and must “adapt as the landscape changes.”
The order to refocus the system’s priorities comes just days after Trump signed an executive order directing immigration agents to focus enforcement efforts on far more immigrants living in the country illegally, including anyone arrested on a criminal charge or with a criminal history.
A second order directed Homeland Security officials to detain immigrants caught crossing the border illegally and hold them until they can be deported or a judge rules on their fate.
“He’s going to keep everybody detained,” said Annaluisa Padilla, an immigration attorney in California. “There is nothing about speeding here or having people have due process in court.”
Trump’s call to detain more border crossers comes with a need for more jail space. The government has enough money to jail 34,000 people at any given time, though thousands more people have been held in recent months.
The government is looking for more jail beds, acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan said Tuesday.
A message left for the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday was not immediately returned.
Padilla said she worries the change means unaccompanied children with strong cases might get stuck in the backlog.
Immigration attorney Meeth Soni said she believed immigration authorities want the court to move quicker on detention cases to free up more jail space.
“In anticipation of more increased detention, and those proceedings, they’re going to have to basically make that a priority for the court,” said Soni, an attorney at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles.