The Biden administration is launching a new effort Friday at immigration courts in 10 cities across the US to speed up cases for immigrant families who are picked up by agents after crossing the southern border, according to internal Department of Justice documents and administration officials.
The plan, which will begin in Denver, Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle, comes as a growing number of families have been able to cross the border and remain in the US. Unlike single adults, who have been predominantly turned around by border agents under a Trump-era order, many families have been able to cross into the US after Mexican officials passed a law prohibiting undocumented immigrant children from being held in detention centers.
Biden administration officials view the effort as a way to make the court process more efficient for immigrant families.
“Families arriving at the border who are placed in immigration proceedings should have their cases decided in an orderly, efficient, and fair manner,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Families who have recently arrived should not languish in a multi-year backlog; today’s announcement is an important step for both justice and border security.”
The so-called dedicated docket plan will apply to certain immigrant families who are arrested after crossing the border on or after Friday. The families will not be detained but will be monitored by immigration officials through the alternatives to detention program. The Biden administration has largely moved away from keeping families in detention facilities.
The Biden administration selected the cities, officials said, because of the number of available judges to handle the cases, along with a robust network of legal providers available to help the arriving immigrants. Officials say they will provide the families services to help them understand the immigration system and find possible representation. The courts will attempt to issue a decision within 300 days of an initial hearing.
Only judges who have time on their dockets will be scheduled to take on these cases, according to a policy memo sent to immigration court staff Friday morning.
“The mission of the Department of Justice’s immigration courts is to decide the cases that come before them promptly and fairly,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “This new program for certain newly arriving families will help achieve that critically important goal.”
Plans to speed up the case processing for families and unaccompanied children have been attempted by previous administrations. The Trump administration also implemented a quicker docket, however, officials expected judges to complete the cases in one year or less. By 2019, 80% of families had “in absentia” deportation orders or when families were not present in court, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Biden administration officials claim that the plan is different from the Trump administration’s efforts because they will not only make a concerted effort to help families who are thrust into this program with support services, but they “will work closely with pro bono legal services providers to maximize legal representation,” according to a DHS official. In addition, they emphasized that while they anticipate that judges will make decisions 300 days after initial hearings, they won’t be subject to strict timelines.
Elsewhere, the policy memo sent to court staff on Friday says that judges retain the discretion to push back cases for good cause as they consider the immigrant family’s right to counsel and due process.
The ability for immigrants to obtain representation is often key in the ultimate outcomes for their court cases. In 2014, Obama officials created a process for courts to quickly hear cases of children and families, which also faced criticism for the program over due process concerns. That program, however, did not put a deadline on when the cases must be completed.
“Under the Obama rocket docket, 81 percent of those without counsel failed to attend their hearings and were ordered removed as a result, while just 8 percent of those with counsel received such in absentia removal orders,” wrote Sarah Pierce, a former Migration Policy Institute researcher. “And those with counsel were ten times more likely to be granted some sort of relief from removal.”
The immigration court system has struggled to deal with a growing backlog of over a million cases and it often takes years for cases to be heard in front of a judge. The Trump administration forced judges to follow case completion quotas and took away their abilities to close certain cases.
While more families have been able to cross the border, thousands have been turned back every month under a public health order, known as Title 42, that officials say is aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Immigrant advocates have criticized the policy, saying it violates the law and does not provide the ability for those fleeing persecution to seek protection in the US.
The ACLU has challenged the use of the policy against families in a federal lawsuit.
The organization represents six families who fled their countries and were seeking safety in the US. Prior to the policy, the group contends, the families would have had a chance at seeking asylum at the border.
Instead, under the Title 42 policy, immigrants and families at the border must “affirmatively” state they are fearful of being tortured in their home country in order to get the chance at a screening for protections.
The case, which is being heard by the same judge who blocked the use of the policy against children, has been in a holding pattern in recent months as both the government and the ACLU have discussed a potential resolution. The judge has held off any decision until sometime in June.