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Immigration Blog

As immigration courts battle record backlog, retired Bay Area judges offer solution

Spurred into action by the country’s overwhelming immigration court backlog, two retired Bay Area federal judges have asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint retired judges to help clear the more than 700,000 open immigration cases in the United States.

In a letter sent Thursday to Sessions and Executive Office for Immigration Review Director James McHenry, retired U.S. District Court judges Marilyn Hall Patel and Lowell Jensen urged the pair to use this “considerable resource” to alleviate the “crushing burden of pending and new cases.”

“We are aware that at this time there are extraordinary burdens and backlogs faced every day by the country’s immigration judges, particularly along the southern border,” the letter said. “We believe retired federal judges are a valuable untapped resource who could be called into service to assist in handling the immigration caseload fairly and efficiently.”

The backlog of immigration cases — which includes deportation hearings and asylum claims — increased by almost one-third under the Trump administration, with 171,656 cases added since the president took office, according to a June report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University. The number of cases awaiting decision reached an all-time high of 714,067 at the end of May, TRAC data shows. The group analyzes and publishes data it collects on the activities of the U.S. federal government.

That number is likely to grow, as thousands of undocumented immigrants have been seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border with their children in recent weeks. Decisions on granting asylum or another type of relief now take more than twice as long as removal decisions, according to TRAC data. Relief decisions this year on average took 1,064 days — up 17 percent — from last year.

Patel said long immigration backlogs are harmful to the cases themselves because it means judges are spread so thin that they don’t have sufficient time to devote to each case, no matter how complex.

“It means that not enough time is given to each case that is required,” she said. “That’s the problem. You can’t handle these things in-and-out.”

The Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees U.S. immigration court, declined to comment on Patel’s letter Thursday because the agency hasn’t received it yet but said it’s in the process of hiring more judges. There are currently 332 immigration judges nationwide, up from 273 in September 2016, according to spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly.

In March, Trump signed a spending bill allocating an additional 100 immigration judge positions.

The efforts are part of the Trump administration’s push to slash the backlog in immigration cases in half by 2020. Aside from hiring more judges, the Department of Justice plans to use new technology — such as videoconferencing — and increase judge productivity by setting case-completion quotas, according to a 2017 Washington Post report. The agency also planned to tap retired judges to fill in on days when certain courts would be empty, the report said.

This week, Operation Streamline — a controversial federal program that orchestrates expedited deportation hearings for undocumented border crossers — arrived in California.

Patel, who retired in 2012, said retired judges are the best fit because they’ve already been vetted and have the security clearance and experience to take on the cases.

“The attorney general has the authority to appoint immigration judges,” she said. “Why not appoint some of the retired federal judges for a limited period of time to clear out this backlog?”

Patel was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, becoming the first woman judge in the history of the district. She served as chief judge of the district between 1997–2004 — also the first woman to hold that post.

In one of her most notable civil rights cases, Patel in 1983 overturned Japanese-American Fred Korematsu’s criminal conviction for disobeying government orders to leave his Bay Area home and enter an internment camp during World War II.

Jensen, who also spent decades on the bench, was a deputy U.S. attorney general during the Reagan administration in the 1980s and a former Alameda County District Attorney. He retired in 2014.

Immigrant couple ‘detained by ICE while visiting pregnant daughter on US military base’

An elderly immigrant couple has been arrested while attempting to visit their pregnant daughter and son-in-law at a military base in New York.

Margarito Silva and his wife, Concepcion Barrios, were visiting their family at the Fort Drum military base on 4 July when they were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The couple – both of whom are undocumented – were transferred to an immigrant detention centre nearly 200 miles away, where they remain in ICE custody.

The couple’s daughter, Perla Silva, issued an impassioned cry for their release, saying they were both recovering from recent surgeries and had doctor’s appointments scheduled in the coming days.

“My parents are both ill and in need of a lot of medical attention … Who can assure us that they’re being taken care of the way that they need to be?” a visibly emotional Ms Silva asked at a press conference.

“We can’t wait any longer. We can’t have them sit around in there anymore,” she added.

A spokesperson for the military base said the couple were taken into custody after failing to present a valid form of identification.

Both Mr Silva and Ms Barrios carried New York City identification cards, also known as IDNYC, which are available to residents of the city regardless of immigration status.

The pair had used their IDNYC cards to visit family on other military bases before, their daughter said. But when they presented their cards at Fort Durm, officials claimed, they did not have the barcodes necessary to gain access.

“The barcode brings us a photo of the individual that we can check against the ID and the person presenting it,” army spokeswoman Julie Halpin told NBC New York. “NYC IDs do not have this bar code.”

When the couple was unable to provide documentation of legal entry into the US, Ms Halprin said, security personnel contacted ICE. The couple admitted to residing illegally in the country and were charged with being present in the US without admission or parole, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told ABC News.

This is not the first time an undocumented immigrant has been taken into custody after presenting their IDNYC card. New York resident Pablo Villavicencio was detained while delivering a pizza to the Hamilton army base in New York City last month, after presenting his identification card at the gate.

Local politicians said Mr Villavicencio had used the card to enter the same military base without issue in the past. New York governor Andrew Cuomo wrote an open letter to ICE demanding Mr Villavicencio’s release and requesting an investigation into “apparent profiling by ICE agents” last month.

Mr Cuomo also spoke out about Mr Silva and Ms Barrios’ case on Monday, tweeting that they would be provided a pro-bono lawyer to “combat this injustice”.

“Detaining a hardworking couple visiting their patriot son-in-law on the Fourth of July goes against everything this country stands for,” he wrote.

U.S. Decision To End Temporary Immigration Protections Was Racist, Attorneys Argue

Immigrant rights advocates in Boston federal court Thursday argued the Trump administration’s cancellation of a humanitarian program for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras were decisions steeped in racism, and therefore, unconstitutional.

The lawsuit filed in February asked a federal judge to block Trump’s termination of  Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians, Salvadorans and Hondurans, saying the government’s actions violate equal protection principles in the U.S. Constitution.

TPS allows certain immigrants to live in the U.S. temporarily and without fear of deportation following natural disasters or amid civil war in their native countries. For Haiti and El Savlador, the designations were established after earthquakes in 2010 and 2001, respectively. Honduras was hit by a massive hurricane in 1998 that leveled the country.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice partnered with the advocacy group Centro Presente to file the lawsuit, which states the government’s decision to rescind TPS for these three countries was “impermissibly infected by invidious discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and/or national origin and therefore cannot stand.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, pointed to previous comments from President Trump, including equating Latino immigrants with rapists and referring to Haiti as a “shithole” country.

“This isn’t about law,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. “It’s about Trump and his efforts to deport immigrants of color. Congress has expressed its clear intent that the operative word here is ‘protected,’ not ‘temporary.’ “

There are an estimated 10,000 TPS recipients from El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras living in Massachusetts and more than 400,000 living across the U.S. They are reported to have more than 200,000 U.S.-citizen children.

The government is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit saying TPS protections are designed to be temporary. Furthermore, the government argues, the statute only allows the administration to evaluate country conditions related to the specific events that precipitated the establishment of a TPS designation in the first place. As the Trump White House has done with other immigration policy matters, the government is shifting the onus onto Congress in order change the TPS statute.

But attorneys for the plaintiffs say past administrations have indeed taken more holistic views of country conditions when evaluating whether to renew a country’s TPS status. Lawyers said the Trump administration essentially created this new strict interpretation of its own accord.

The courtroom was standing room only, and, at one point, Judge Denise Casper allowed people waiting outside the court room to come in and sit in the jury box.

Casper said she would take all of the materials into consideration in making her decision on the government’s request to dismiss the case.

The attorney for the government asked that, in the event the case does proceed, President Trump be removed as a defendant, stating that decisions on TPS are executed by the Department of Homeland Security.

George W. Bush ‘disturbed’ by current US immigration debate

Former President George W Bush said he is “disturbed” by the immigration debate taking place in the United States because it “undermines the goodness of America.”

“I think it doesn’t recognize the valuable contributions that immigrants make to our society. And it obscures the fact — the rhetoric does — that the system is broken and needs to be fixed,” Bush said on Thursday.

Bush made the comment when responding to a question at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.

He was joined by former President Bill Clinton, and the event was part of the graduation ceremony for this year’s class of Presidential Leadership Scholars.

The former Republican president’s remarks come as tensions continue to rise in the US over immigration. The government is working to reunite undocumented families who were separated at the border as a result of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

CNN previously reported on new guidance issued Wednesday on asylum seekers at the border that could result in thousands of individuals being turned away before they can plead their cases in court.

The new guidance, given to the officers who interview asylum seekers at the US borders and evaluate refugee applications, shows that although the administration has reversed its “zero-tolerance” policy, it is continuing hardline immigration tactics.