Department of Homeland Security officials expect about 150 immigration judges from across the US will be selected to handle cases involving asylum-seekers forced to remain in Mexico while their cases proceed, according to a source with knowledge of the matter, a massive potential increase in assignments that threatens to overwhelm an already struggling court system.
Around a dozen judges currently presiding over courts in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, handle the cases of people referred under Migration Protection Protocols, the controversial Trump administration policy forcing asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as their cases move through the immigration system. While the cases can take months or years to be scheduled, the number of individuals included in the program has expanded to more than 35,000, according to figures obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The Trump administration hopes to change that by soon opening facilities along the border to handle the cases. Officials plan to open two border courts in Texas — in Laredo and Brownsville — by the middle of September, in which they will hear up to 20 cases per day, according to a government briefing document obtained by BuzzFeed News. A DHS spokesperson said the date the facilities would open was still to be determined.
On Tuesday, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who chairs the House DHS Appropriations Subcommittee, revealed in a letter that the agency had plans to transfer $155 million in federal disaster funds to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help fund the new facilities.
The cases heard at the border are expected to be conducted primarily via video teleconferencing, allowing for more judges across the country to be brought into the process. Assistants, working on contract, will help organize the hearings by taking roll call, send case documents to judges in other locations, and operate the video systems, according to a separate DHS planning document obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Judges assigned these cases could be forced to delay other asylum and deportation hearings that had already been scheduled, causing a ripple effect and further growing an already bloated court backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases.
“Once again immigration judges from courts across the country will have to push their home court dockets aside to preside televideo at border courts,” said one immigration court official who could not speak publicly on the matter. “This will wreak havoc on court dockets across the country.”
At a San Diego court that has presided over many "Remain in Mexico" cases for months, judges have been told to prioritize the hearings over others, according to a source with knowledge of the change. As a result, some immigrants who have waited for months or years for their previously scheduled cases will likely have their hearings delayed.
“The prioritization of MPP cases will place a huge burden on the immigration courts,” said a DOJ official involved with immigration matters. “Additionally, the postponement of previously scheduled cases will cause the backlog to grow even more, as the completion of these cases will be further delayed for months or even years.”
Rebecca Jamil, a former immigration judge under the Trump administration, said that the cases on judge’s dockets don’t go away when they are assigned new cases.
“Those families have been waiting for years to have their cases heard, and now will wait another two or three years, and due process is denied by the delay — evidence becomes stale, witnesses die, country conditions change,” she said.
The Department of Justice, which oversees the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which manages the nation’s immigration courts, is prepared to meet the demands from the DHS on any hearings, an agency spokesperson said.
The potential changes come as data revealed by Syracuse University indicates that asylum-seekers forced to wait in Mexico rarely have legal representation; just 1% of individuals are accompanied by attorneys at their hearings.
The Remain in Mexico program is one of the few hardline Trump immigration policies that has thus far survived a court injunction. While a federal court judge in San Francisco blocked the policy earlier this year, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel allowed it to continue as a legal challenge works its way through the court process.
Asylum-seekers who were returned to Mexico under the Trump administration have faced consequences of remaining there, according to advocacy group Human Rights First. The group found more than 100 cases of people returned under the program alleging rapes, kidnappings, sexual exploitation, or assault, according to a report released this month.