The federal government is adding a fast-track family docket at Denver Immigration Court, and local lawyers are concerned that some asylum-seekers could be given short shrift as a result.
"I just can't see how this turns out well," says Hans Meyer, a Denver immigration attorney. "Rhetorically, it's nice to hear. Functionally, it sounds like a disaster in the making."
On May 28, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and U. S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the addition of a new, fast-track family immigration court docket designed to "more expeditiously and fairly make decisions in immigration cases of families who arrive between ports of entry at the Southwest border."
The Executive Office for Immigration Review identified immigration courts in ten cities with "established communities of legal services providers and available judges to handle the cases." Denver is one of the cities, along with Los Angeles, New York, El Paso and others, that will have an expedited family docket added to its regular immigration court docket.
"This new process should significantly decrease the amount of time it takes for migrants to have their cases adjudicated while still providing fair hearings for families seeking asylum at the border," according to a joint announcement of the program by the DHS and the DOJ. "While the goal of this process is to decide cases expeditiously, fairness will not be compromised."
This move by the Biden administration comes as the president and his team are dealing with a crisis of undocumented immigrant asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, where unauthorized border crossings reached a twenty-year high earlier this year. The expedited court docket will only be available to families that are apprehended by Customs and Border Protection at ports of entry starting May 28 who qualify for the alternatives to detention program, which logs people into the immigration system without keeping them detained.
"In effect, what they’re doing is they’re catapulting these families through this system with the exact same policies in place that the Trump administration had, with a faster timeline than the Trump administration had, and with the same amount of resources for legal representation that they had, which was essentially none," says Laura Lunn, a lawyer with Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which provides pro bono representation to immigrants in Colorado fighting deportation.
RMIAN doesn't have the funding to take on more than twenty new cases, she warns. And the federal government confirms that the new docket process doesn't come with more funding.
"EOIR does not expect to receive a supplemental increase to its budget related to the Dedicated Docket and will continue to deploy its resources to best meet the agency’s mission," says Teresa Kaltenbacher, a spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Denver Immigration Court is located in the downtown Byron Rogers Federal Building. The court handles cases for non-detained individuals, while detained individuals go through proceedings at a court in the Aurora ICE facility.
Adults in asylum-seeking families can receive work authorization a few months after initially asking for asylum, and make money that could potentially help pay for an immigration attorney to handle the family's case. Traditionally, those cases can often wind through the system for years, offering more time to find money and an attorney.
But the new policy for the family docket establishes a 300-day timeline from the first hearing to when a judge should be issuing a decision.
"If we have an asylum case that's supposed to be completed in less than 300 days and it takes two to four to five months to get your work permit, you're only going to have work authorization [for 150 to 240 days]," notes Meyer. As a result, many people won't be able to afford legal representation. And people going through immigration court without an attorney are much less likely to find success with their cases.
"This plan, it serves to really strip people of access to the legal protections," says Lunn.
Time isn't the only thing in short supply with this new docket. Lunn and Meyer wonder whether Denver Immigration Court, which has eight judges, will be able to handle the load.
"Courts don't necessarily do their best work when they're given artificial timelines to meet," notes Meyer.
The Biden administration did not ask for input from the National Association of Immigration Judges before implementing the plan, according to Samuel Cole, a spokesperson for the association.
"We are reviewing it closely," he says, "and hope that the administration will work with us to assure that all non-citizens in immigration court are afforded due process."
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