For migrants, delays in US courts may be a boon

The accumulation of files before US immigration justice reaches such a level that it encourages asylum seekers in the eyes of officials to struggle to enter the United States in hopes of working for years without being deported.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) organization at Syracuse University, based in New York State, more than 2.4 million files are pending with about 650 immigration judges.

“We’re dealing with a truly appalling volume,” David Neal, director of the Justice Department’s immigration review services, said recently at a symposium organized by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based think tank.

Last year, 313,000 files were completed, but the Department of Homeland Security submitted 700,000 new files, “double what we were able to close,” he said.

According to MPI, asylum seekers, who represent 40% of the courts’ workload, wait an average of four years before receiving their first hearing. And the process will take a long time to complete.

A period during which they can work, save and send money to their families in the country.

“It is clear that the current slow legal immigration process has become a major factor driving immigration into the region,” Blas Núñez-Neto, border and migration policy officer for the Department of Homeland Security, told the symposium.

– “fair” and “effective” –

Candidates for entry into the United States, many of whom are from Latin America, sometimes pay smugglers up to $15,000 to reach the border.

And according to Blas Núñez-Neto, they do because “once they are in the immigration justice system and have filed the necessary documents, they are eligible for a work permit”.

According to him, “the legal system has basically become a legal bypass for people to get into the United States”.

Most migrants were Mexican at some point and rarely sought asylum. But they now mainly come from other countries and many “seek protection, although relatively few ultimately receive it”, the official assured.

Migrants cross the Rio Grande River near Matamoros, Mexico to enter the United States on May 11, 2023 (AFP/Archive – Alfredo Estrella)

In a new report, MPI offers ways to modernize immigration law, which hasn’t changed for 36 years, to reduce congestion in courts: closing cases that don’t meet necessary criteria, encouraging the use of technology, reinstating asylum officers to manage border procedures without going through judges, and reversing priorities by deciding on last-come cases rather than first filed ones, says institute researcher Muzaffar Chishti.

But Jojo Anobile, whose union Immigrant Justice Corps provides legal aid to migrants, “does not want a system where the last to arrive is the first, and where people are deported without being defended by a lawyer”.

For David Neill of the Ministry of Justice, we must manage to be both “fair” and “efficient”.

– low arrival –

Jojo Anobile points out that the delay is also due to other factors, such as frequent adjournments of hearings and the obligation to fingerprint asylum seekers every 15 months.

The number of arrivals to the United States has declined since May, when Joe Biden’s administration issued new rules to replace “Title 42,” a measure activated by his predecessor Donald Trump that allowed all immigrants entering the country to be immediately turned back, under the pretext of a pandemic.

In June, US officials counted 99,545 entries along the border with Mexico, or 30% fewer than in May.

These new rules restrict the right to asylum in practice and have been challenged in court by several civil rights associations: they provide that applicants – with the exception of unaccompanied minors – manage to obtain an appointment or register their request in one of the transit countries, “CBP One”, a telephone application that centralizes requests.

Without it, their request is considered illegitimate and they may be subject to expedited deportation process, banning them from entering US soil for up to five years.

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