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Crime & Justice

LA's busy immigration courts could swell under Trump




Left to right: Luis González (16), his mother Ana Hernández, sister Mariela Michell Beltrán-Hernandez (15)  and brother Alejandro González (16), stand on the steps of L.A.’s immigration court in downtown just ahead of a court date for their younger sister on Friday August 12th, 2016. LA's busy immigration courts are part of a nationwide system that is straining under half a million cases.
Left to right: Luis González (16), his mother Ana Hernández, sister Mariela Michell Beltrán-Hernandez (15) and brother Alejandro González (16), stand on the steps of L.A.’s immigration court in downtown just ahead of a court date for their younger sister on Friday August 12th, 2016. LA's busy immigration courts are part of a nationwide system that is straining under half a million cases.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

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The nation's busy immigration courts – already burdened by an unprecedented backlog of half a million cases – could strain even more if a Trump administration steps up deportations as promised.

"This is the year that the crisis really came to a head," said Jennifer Chacón, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and observer of the immigration courts. "We've had growing backlogs, but people are getting their cases calendered for years from now."

Those cases nationwide are at 526,175, according to the Transcactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which uses government data to track the immigration courts. California currently has nearly 100,000 cases, with about half filling the courts in Los Angeles. That has all led to wait times at the courts that range from 2-4 years. (The Denver courts currently chart the longest average wait time in the nation, at 1,033 days, or 2.8 years.)

The burden on judges could also increase, as dockets swell with more cases and those on the bench come under increasing pressure to render decisions.

"I see this as a pot that is going to boil over and scald everybody," said Bruce Einhorn, a former immigration judge in Los Angeles. "I just don't see pragmatically how you can almost double the number of cases without spending huge amounts of money to try to accommodate the dockets of the cases already on schedule and those that will be brought into the system."

The backlog of cases is not new. It has steadily increased over the past decade — even as fewer immigrants have been apprehended along the Southwest border in recent years. In response, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the agency that oversees the courts, has added more judges, including one to Los Angeles in November. It's also prioritized juvenile cases in an effort to speed up cases of migrant youth.

President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to step up deportations, starting with what he called an estimated 2-3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records. That could affect the detention system, where many immigrants are held as they contest their deportation or await court dates.

The largest privately-run site in California is in Adelanto and holds about 2,000 adult detainees, but its troubled record on health care and treatment of detainees raises questions about how it and other sites could handle a boost of detainees.

Another factor that could affect the courts is who ends up heading the Justice Department, which ultimately runs the courts. Trump has named Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) to be attorney general.

Sessions, who still must clear a confirmation hearing, has fought efforts at comprehensive immigration reform as a senator and has pushed for limiting legal immigration. As attorney general, he would wield tremendous influence over the courts, including overseeing the hiring of judges, setting priorities and reviewing an appeals process for court decisions.