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Immigration Judge: Obama’s Boost In Funds For Courts Won’t Be Enough

Aired 7/9/14 on KPBS News.

President Barack Obama wants to hire 40 immigration judges to deal with the flood of Central American children and families arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico, but an immigration judge in California says it won't be enough.

A child in Guatemala leans against a colorfully painted wall, Jan. 3, 2010.

President Barack Obama wants to hire 40 immigration judges as part of the $3.7 billion package he’s proposing to deal with the flood of Central American children and families arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Speaking Wednesday after a visit to Texas, where the majority of Central American children and families are illegally crossing into the U.S., Obama said there were “not enough detention facilities, not enough judges” to deal with what he’s dubbed a “humanitarian crisis.”

He said that if Congress approves his request for supplemental funding, “we could shrink the wait times” for immigration cases, and more quickly deport people who have no legal basis for remaining in the U.S.

But the help may be too little, too late, said Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

“Clearly, what President Obama has requested is an excellent first step. That said, we are very concerned that it will not be sufficient to deal with the long-term scarcity of resources that the immigration courts have had to deal with, coupled with the current surge,” Marks said.

Forty new immigration judges likely won’t make a big dent in the overall caseload, Marks said.

Immigration judges handle an average of 1,500 cases each, about three times more than the average for federal district court judges. (Marks handles more than 2,500 cases at the busy San Francisco immigration court.)

According to Obama’s proposal, the 40 new judges plus the 35 that he’s requesting as part of his fiscal 2015 budget proposal “would provide sufficient capacity to process an additional 55,000 to 75,000 cases annually.” That works out to potentially 1,000 cases per new judge.

The Department of Justice has already reassigned seven immigration judges to South Texas and three judges to a new family immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, according to Kathryn Mattingly of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is part of the Justice Department. The reassignments generally last one week, she said.

Even such a short reassignment could set regularly scheduled cases back by several years, Marks said. As it is, it generally takes five years for Marks to hear a case after it's filed.

“What's frustrating about the delays is that it benefits the weaker cases and penalizes the stronger cases,” Marks said.

If people are likely to be deported, they benefit from being allowed to stay in the U.S. while they await their day in court. But people who have a strong case for asylum or another form of immigration relief, they’re stuck in limbo until they get a ruling.

Marks said she also is concerned about Obama’s plan to speed up deportation proceedings for children who have entered the country illegally.

“You need to, in fact, slow down the proceedings often when you have juveniles involved, particularly when they are unrepresented by an attorney," the immigration judge said.

Obama’s pitch to Congress includes $15 million to provide more legal services for children in immigration court. Of the 173,018 immigration cases completed last year involving children and adults, 41 percent had lawyers, according to the Justice Department.

In his speech Wednesday, Obama said the immigration-reform bill approved by the U.S. Senate “would have put us into a stronger position to deal with this surge.”

The bill, passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate last year but not taken up by Republican leaders in the House, would have added 225 immigration judges over a period of three years.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of money requested from Congress by President Obama.

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