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In this May 14, 2013, file photo, the Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington is photographed early in the morning. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)
In this May 14, 2013, file photo, the Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington is photographed early in the morning. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

DOJ works to ease immigration case backlog

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Inside the glass high-rise that houses the headquarters of the nation’s immigration courts, the focus is on how to make the immensely strained system more efficient.

Grappling with an inherited backlog that has ballooned to 1 million deportation cases, a years-long wait for hearings and White House pressure, the Executive Office for Immigration Review is buying real estate for new courts, creating an online filing system, streamlining training and hiring judges.

And it still can’t keep up.

Its monthly caseload more than doubled last October, when it was 35,776. In October 2017, it was 15,045.

“We are working on what we can control and we’re trying to keep the inertia going,” said James McHenry, who leads the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

EOIR, as it’s known, is the arm of the Justice Department that oversees deportation proceedings — whether immigrants are allowed stay in the U.S. or whether they are turned back to their countries. Unlike independent trial courts, immigration court judges and employees work under Attorney General William Barr.

The court backlog existed long before President Donald Trump took office. But a crackdown on the Southwest border and illegal immigration plus a surge in asylum-seeking families from Central America have added more cases.

The Associated Press recently visited immigration courts in 11 cities in late fall, observing scores of hearings that illustrated how the crushing caseloads and shifting policies are creating turmoil.

EOIR officials say it will take time for the changes they are implementing to sink in across a system where the average time is 130 days for cases where the immigrant is held in detention, and about 970 days — nearly three years — when the person is not detained. Plus, Justice Department officials ordered immigration judges to stop putting cases on hold indefinitely — a tool they used to manage a swelling docket — which brought hundreds of thousands of cases back.

McHenry and his staff are focusing on the data, technology, methodology in their agency. But they can’t control the entire massive immigration system.

“If we can get the backlog to decrease even a little bit that would be tremendous,” he said.

Among their biggest change is the recent creation of electronic filing system that is already being piloted in Houston, Aurora, Colorado and Philadelphia that will eventually replace mountains of paperwork stored in blue files used by most judges.

Under the new system, judges can generate orders, send information and read up on files. The system is meant for everyone who deals with immigration court — attorneys, plus multiple different agencies involved in immigration enforcement — and synthesizes all information so it can be accessed by all. It allows judges to check family histories, send orders and take notes. They can generate a court date with one click. By the end of 2020, 36 sites should be online.

EOIR has asked for a budget of $673 million this year – up from $312 million in 2014, in part to construct more courtrooms. Right now, it has 439 judges. It can hire 534, but doesn’t have courtroom space. They are working on adding courts in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. Their goal is to have one clerk per judge, and it wants to hire 100 more Spanish interpreters, and add Chinese interpreters.

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