Despite the Senate's failure to bring up House-passed legislation to reverse President Barack Obama's 2012 policy suspending deportations of some illegal immigrants and expedite deportations, thousands of Central American children will have their cases heard on an expedited basis due to changes the Administration has made in the deportation process.
To delay those changes, immigration advocates have taken their cause from the halls of Congress to the courts and the court of public opinion.
“This has hit us like a hurricane or a tsunami or whatever you can call it, because we’re already overwhelmed with cases. It will need all hands on deck,” Jojo Annobil, the head of the Immigration Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society, told The New York Times
On Aug. 1, the American Civil Liberties Union joined with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Public Counsel, and the law firm of K&L Gates LLP to file a preliminary injunction motion seeking to "immediately block the government from pursuing deportation proceedings against several children unless it ensures those youth have legal representation."
"These children face an imminent threat of being deported, potentially to their death," Ahilan Arulanantham, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU
's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a press release. "To force them to defend themselves against a trained prosecutor, with their lives literally on the line, violates due process and runs counter to everything our country stands for," she added.
The motion is not the first effort by the group of immigration advocates to halt the deportation of Central American illegal immigrants.
In July, the coalition filed a lawsuit charging that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Executive Office for Immigration Review, and Office of Refugee Resettlement were violating their Fifth Amendment rights to due process and the Immigration and Nationality Act’s provisions requiring a “full and fair hearing” before an immigration judge.
The lawsuit, J.E.F.M. v. Holder, was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle and proposes requiring the government to provide all children facing deportation with legal representation in their immigration proceedings.
On Aug. 4, the ACLU began circulating a petition
urging supporters to contact the White House to urge the administration to provide every child with legal representation. On July 9, the Department of Justice
announced plans to address the additional burden being placed on immigration courts by the influx of Central American children.
In announcing the administration's plans to hire more immigration judges and to prioritize caseloads, Deputy Attorney General Cole said the department had an obligation to "do whatever we can to stem the tide of this dangerous migration pattern. The efforts we are announcing today are intended to address the challenges of this influx in a humane, efficient and timely way.”
Leslie A. Holman, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, reacted strongly to efforts to expedite deportation reviews, calling it "simply unconscionable" and in contradiction with the "fundamental values of this nation."
In a statement, Holman
said, "The additional resources the Administration is reported to be seeking should be brought to bear to ensure fair and humane treatment of the migrant children fleeing their homes for the possibility of safety and security in a distant land. The funds should be used for immigration court staff and to ensure immigration courts can review each case and the children have access to counsel rather than to buy more plane tickets to take them 'home' to a place their lives may be in danger."
Appearing on July 9 before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Juan P. Osuna, director of the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review, laid out the administration's plans to refocus its resources on prioritizing cases involving migrants who crossed the southwest border in recent weeks and were placed into removal proceedings.
He said his office would "prioritize the adjudication of cases involving unaccompanied children, adults with children in detention" and "realign our resources with these priorities, EOIR will reassign immigration judges in immigration courts around the country from their regular dockets to hear the cases of individuals falling in these four groups. Lower priority cases will be rescheduled to accommodate higher priority cases."
Because shifting judges to higher priority regions, such as New York and Texas, would result in a shortage in immigration courts around the country, Justice sent to the Federal Register a rule to provide for the appointment of temporary immigration judges to assist with the situation.
The backlog in the nation's immigration courts has been increasing in recent years and data obtained by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
shows juvenile cases are contributing to an increasing backlog of immigration cases, which reached an all-time high of 375,503 as of the end of June 2014.
That represents an increase of more than 50,000 since the start of FY 2013. The three states with the largest backlogs are California (77,400 cases), Texas (62,143) and New York (55,010).
According to TRAC, as of the end of June 2014, the court backlog for juveniles from Guatemala is the largest with 12,841 cases, closely followed by Honduras (12,696) and El Salvador (12,162). The average wait time a case remains pending in the Immigration Courts of the Executive Office for Immigration Review is now 587 days.
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