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U.S. Delays Thousands of Immigration Hearings by Nearly 5 Years

Thursday, 29 January 2015

WASHINGTON—The Justice Department has a special date reserved for thousands of immigrants awaiting their day in court: the day after Thanksgiving in 2019.

Officials have begun sending out notices that thousands of immigrants awaiting hearings will have their cases pushed back nearly five years, a fresh sign of the pervasive backlogs and delays in the U.S. immigration court system. The delay makes room for higher-priority cases caused last summer by a surge in unaccompanied minors and families crossing the border with Mexico.

The Justice Department started notifying employees in the immigration court system last week that nonpriority cases were being bumped off the court docket and would get a Nov. 29, 2019, court date, which happens to be Black Friday. The far-off date, especially one when courts typically operate on a bare-bones staff, suggests officials view it as a bureaucratic placeholder.

It wasn’t immediately clear exactly how many people would be given this new court date. But the number of people affected will easily be in the thousands, and could reach tens of thousands, according to people familiar with the decision.

Those bumped back in the system are nonpriority cases, which means most are living freely and not being held in detention. Most also don’t have a pressing issue requiring immediate attention from an immigration judge.

Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a nonpartisan organization, said a delay of more than four years isn’t that surprising, given the overloaded nature of the court docket that existed before the events of last summer.

“This backlog has existed for years, and Congress just doesn’t make it a priority,” Mr. Chen said.

There are about 230 immigration judges in the country, handling more than 375,000 cases. The average time to resolve a case is nearly 600 days.

Immigration courts are unusual in that they are directly overseen by the Justice Department—meaning that, unlike federal or state courts, immigration judges are supervised and take instructions from administrative bosses.

Lauren Alder Reid, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the Justice Department, said the rescheduling of cases was the clear outcome of the Obama administration’s decision last summer to give priority to cases of unaccompanied minors, families and other urgent cases.

Officials predicted the decision would cause significant delays for nonpriority cases, she said.

“This is exactly what we said was going to happen,” she said.

Several people who work in the immigration court system said there is some hope and expectation that the court dates will be moved earlier once judges resolve many of the priority cases.

On Wednesday, questions about the Obama administration’s immigration policies dominated the confirmation hearing of attorney-general nominee Loretta Lynch. But Republican lawmakers largely focused on the president’s decision to grant a reprieve to millions of undocumented immigrants facing deportation.

The Wall Street Journal

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