In an apparent effort to clear the enormous backlog of U.S. immigration cases and speed up deportations, the Department of Justice is deploying 50 judges to immigration detention centers across the country, according to Reuters.
President Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order fulfilled his campaign promise to instigate mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants from the U.S., triggering a flurry of reported immigration enforcement activity in many states. Judges typically hear cases in courts, and a small number work in detention centers. The new DOJ move calls for judges to volunteer for one-to-two-month stints at the centers.
But shuffling judges around the country might just be smoke and mirrors.
“Moving judges from one location to another will not reduce backlogs,” said Lenni Benson, executive director of the New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project. “What we need to know from the Executive Office of Immigration Review is which cases are being prioritized for adjudication, and why other cases are being delayed.”
There is a current backlog of 44,496 immigration cases pending, which is high compared to rates in the early 2000s but lower than what they were in 2012, according to the Trac Immigration database. The system is also plagued by massive delays. Unauthorized immigrants wait an average of 677 days (nearly two years) just to have an immigration hearing in the U.S. — a record high.
The DOJ is also reportedly considering having two rotating daily shifts from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., in an effort to ramp up the number of cases that can be processed in one day, Reuters reported.
Having judges work longer hours, alone, wouldn’t fix the backlog of cases. Benson points out processing a higher volume of immigration cases also requires more interpreters and court personnel. “It sounds like a lot of overtime to me,” Benson said, adding, “unless they’re going to do a lot of extra hiring.” Hiring in the federal government does not happen quickly. Federal employees need security clearances, which can take anywhere from six months to a year to go through.
In the Feb. 20 enforcement memo that set Trump’s executive order into action, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that the backlog in immigration cases and delays was “unacceptable.”
The executive order also ended the “catch and release” policy (phased out under George W. Bush and revived under Barack Obama), which released immigrants from detention and allowed them to live in the U.S. until their immigration court hearing. The end to that policy would certainly mean soaring detention-facility populations (another provision of the order called for more and expanded detention centers). As it stands, there are 209 immigration detention facilities in the U.S. Last September, former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said that approximately 41,000 people were currently being held in immigrant detention centers, exceeding stated capacity by more than 10,000.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Lenni Benson is the executive director of the New York University Law School’s Safe Passage Project. She is the executive director of the New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project.