DOJ Aims to Expedite Immigration Court Cases

The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued quantitative guidance to immigration judges designed to expedite the backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases awaiting a hearing. Literally a quota system, critics say the new approach potentially undercuts fairness within the legal system and also perhaps lead to far more deportations.

The immigration court guidelines, developed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other DOJ officials, call for judges to complete at least 700 cases per year. This compares to current annual completion rates of 678 cases. In cases where immigrants are held in detention, judges are expected to issue their rulings in 3 days time from the hearing. In cases where immigrants are not held, ruling guidance comes in at 10 days from the hearing.

Attorney General Sessions has plenty of good reason for wanting to speed up case completion in the immigration courts, one of the most under-resourced sectors of the federal  judicial system. Since 2007, for instance, the number of cases on the docket have increased by 160 percent, due largely to record-breaking numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the border. For immigrants, the factors add up to increased wait times for their day in court.

“The immigration courts have a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases, and it can take years for an immigrant’s case  to work its way to completion,” according to a CNN report. “In that time, individuals builds lives in the U.S., and critics point to the immigration courts’ backlog as a major factor in the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.”

DOJ officials stress the guidance around case completion quotas includes a method by which judges falling short of the 700 mark in the fiscal year can offer to superiors the extenuating circumstances as explanation. However, some observers say the emphasis on speeding through the judicial process with such high stakes for individuals amounts to a blatant disregard for basic fairness.

“Creating an environment where the courts care more about the speed than the accuracy, and where judges are evaluated and even rewarded based on quantity rather than quality is unacceptable and a violation of due process,” says Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Pointing specifically to asylum cases where individuals fear persecution in their native countries, Lynch says it’s the most vulnerable populations who face the most risk under the new system. Judges making life-and-death rulings, she says, “must be afforded the time to properly make that decision.”

Other areas of concern where asylum-seekers are concerned center of the lack of language skills and a lack of understanding of U.S. law or a lack of ability to quickly secure competent legal representation or to produce supporting documentation required to make their case.

Immigrant courts allow defendants representation, but no legal requirement exists to provide counsel.