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Opinion: Trump’s immigration enforcement has just made a bad situation worse

Here’s an interesting development: Despite adding 91 judges since November 2015, the backlog of unresolved cases pending in federal immigration courts continues to increase. Why? President Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration enforcement.

According to stats analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are arresting more people suspected of living here illegally, while the Trump administration has all but halted the Obama administration practice of using prosecutorial discretion to close deportation cases by letting those with clean records and long community ties remain in the country.

“During the first five months of the Trump Administration prosecutorial discretion closures precipitously dropped to fewer than 100 per month from an average of around 2,400 per month during the same five month period in 2016,” TRAC said in the report released Tuesday.

To be sure, with the increased number of immigration judges the courts are closing more cases than a year ago, but not nearly enough to counter the rise in new cases and the government’s push for deportation orders in nearly all circumstances.

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“There is little evidence that this increase in hiring is sufficient to handle the incoming caseload,” TRAC said in an earlier report, “let alone make a dent in the court ‘s mountainous backlog.”

Congress’s continued failure to expand the immigration court’s capacity means the increased arrests will just clog an already overloaded system.

In fact, TRAC predicts that by the end of the federal fiscal year in September, immigration judges will issue only 20,000 more deportation orders than the previous year, for a total of about 99,000. That’s less than 1% of the estimated 11 million people living here illegally.

Where the Obama administration focused deportation efforts on “those viewed as presenting a risk to public safety or national security,” the Trump administration has told agents to arrest anyone they encounter who is living here without permission. That has had a dire effect on families.

That policy, and effectively ending prosecutorial discretion, has sent the court backlog soaring to more than 610,000 cases that have been pending, on average, for 672 days. The backlog is nearly 100,000 cases higher than last year, though the wait time is about the same despite the added judges. And the backlog has been exacerbated by the government’s decision to reassign some judges to the border region, which means the caseloads they leave behind also stall.

The Times’ editorial board noted last month that for all the braggadocio of the Trump administration over its immigration enforcement, Congress’ continued failure to expand the immigration court’s capacity means the increased arrests will just clog an already overloaded system.

“This enormous backlog has real-life consequences,” the board wrote. “People in detention centers or jails are spending more time incarcerated as they await hearings on whether they will be allowed to remain in the country. For those with legitimate requests for asylum or other relief from deportation, the delays prolong uncertainty about whether they have found a sanctuary.

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“This should not make the anti-illegal immigration folks happy. If people aren’t getting deported but are just stuck in limbo in the immigration system, then Trump’s ramped-up enforcement program is a chimera. Those immigrants who should be found ineligible to remain in the country because of criminal pasts or other disqualifications wind up, in effect, with open-ended reprieves.”

Of course, for those who think the government’s crackdown is unjust and inhumane, an overloaded immigration court system isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided those awaiting hearings are being held in detention centers. But at heart, this is a failed government enforcement scheme that is only making a bad situation worse.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Scott.Martelle@LATimes.com

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Follow my posts and re-tweets at @smartelle on Twitter


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