By Alicia A. Caldwell, The Wall Street Journal
The Trump administration is issuing new guidelines to the nation’s overwhelmed immigration courts in hopes that new case priorities and goals will ease a massive backlog.
A seven-page memo to immigration judges from James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, says the court should first tackle cases of those detained in immigration jail—with an aim of finishing at least 85% of such cases within two months—and cases with deadlines established by law.
Eighty-five percent of cases for immigrants free in the U.S. should be finished within a year, it says.
There is currently a backlog of nearly 660,000 cases, and jail space for about 34,000 people. The backlog has meant the cases for people not being held in jail can take years to be completed.
President Donald Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority and has repeatedly vowed to quickly deport immigrants caught living in the country illegally.
Arrests of immigrants living in the country illegally rose about 40% during Mr. Trump’s first year in office, though deportations fell as fewer people were caught crossing the border illegally.
The president has also pledged to add resources to the court system and reduce the yearslong backlog.
Mr. McHenry, who oversees the Justice Department’s immigration court system, said in the memo that the agency’s case priority categories can be expanded in the future and apply only to new cases.
Immigration court priorities have shifted multiple times in recent years. The Obama administration moved cases of families and children caught crossing the Mexican border alone to the top of the court’s docket amid a crush of such cases in 2014.
Many of those cases involve asylum claims or other complicated requests by foreigners to stay in the U.S. A variety of laws and court rulings also limit the government’s ability to detain immigrant children or quickly send them home.
When Mr. Trump took office, he ordered court officials to focus on other cases—including those of immigrants in jail—instead.
Mr. McHenry said the repeated shifts in priorities have caused confusion in the court system and have done nothing to create efficiencies in the expanding docket.
Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said previous court policies contributed to the backlog.
“Certain ‘prioritization’ practices actually made the caseload worse by continuing cases that could be resolved more quickly in favor of cases that often actually take longer to complete,” Mr. O’Malley said in a statement. “Any designation of a case as a ‘priority’ should mean it is simply a priority to complete the case in an expeditious manner that serves the national interest and does not compromise due process.”
The backlog did grow steadily after President Barack Obama took office, when there were 223,000 pending cases.
Mr. Obama tried unsuccessfully to address the backlog by focusing enforcement on those immigrants arrested crossing the border illegally, and those who posed a threat to public safety or national security.