Minnesota's immigration court is poised to get extra help after years of complaints about its staggering backlogs and long waits for hearings.
Bloomington Immigration Court is filling a judge position that has been vacant since 2016, and later this year it is slated to add two new judges, bringing its judicial team to five. The court, which is based at Fort Snelling but also handles cases in the Dakotas and western Wisconsin, has about 5,440 pending cases, with an average wait time of nearly two years.
But some local advocates are alarmed by news they would have welcomed in previous years: They worry the hires will help the Trump administration speed up deportations, now stymied by immigration court backlogs.
Historically, the backlogs have been that rare issue that united people on opposite sides of the immigration debate. Immigrant advocates complain that they frustrate asylum seekers and others eager to see their cases resolved. Advocates for limited immigration say that they grant years in the United States to those without a case to stay.
"We've been trying to get extra judges for 10 years," said David Wilson, the local American Immigration Lawyers Association chapter's liaison to the court.
The planned hires come as part of a goal the Trump administration announced last month to bring 125 new judges to the nation's immigration courts by 2019. These courts decide if immigrants facing removal have a good reason to stay, including qualifying for asylum.
Third judge due in June
This month, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the nation's immigration court system, announced that Ryan Wood, newly sworn in as a judge, is joining the Bloomington Court. Wood, a former prosecutor at the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota and counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, will fill a vacancy left when a judge retired in March 2016.
In addition, Wilson said, the EOIR has told his group that two more lawyers are in the final stages of being assigned to this district, which has a large and extremely active immigration bar. (EOIR does not publicly announce judicial appointments until the judges have been sworn in.)
"The district should be up to five judges before the end of the year if there are no retirements or shifting of personnel," Wilson said.
The immigration court's national backlog, which now stands at more than 571,500 cases, worsened after the Obama administration stepped up immigration enforcement and then, more recently, after a surge in Central American arrivals. Hiring of judges has not kept pace, according to Dana Marks, head of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
"What's frustrated our organization over the years is how incredibly slow the process of bringing on new judges is," she said.
In Minnesota, Republican congressman Tom Emmer's office recently took on the backlog issue; staff have reached out to officials and retired judges to find out more about why hiring takes so long.
Mark Metcalf, a former immigration judge and a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limiting immigration, says a court system marked by delays sends a message to immigrants: "The United States isn't taking this seriously, so why should you?" Metcalf says backlogs also contribute to a high rate of no-shows for immigration hearings, at almost 40 percent.
"When cases aren't being dealt in an expeditious manner," he said, "we lose track of people."
The issue is coming to a head as the Trump administration sets out to ramp up enforcement, particularly involving immigrants charged or convicted of crimes. Although the administration is exploring ways to expedite removals, most of the affected individuals still qualify for a day in court before they can be deported.
In a recent memo, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly noted that in some courts immigrants can wait for a hearing for as long as five years.
"This unacceptable delay affords removable aliens with no plausible claim for relief to remain unlawfully in the United States for many years," he wrote.
In January, the Trump administration announced that cases of detained immigrants facing deportation would now be the court system's sole priority. In late April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions touted plans to bring on 50 additional judges this year and 75 next year.
Delays vs. deportations
Immigrant advocates have mixed feelings about the Bloomington appointments.
Danielle Robinson Briand, an attorney and member of the advocacy group Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, said she understands the frustration of an asylum seeker stuck in a state of "hopeful anxiety" for years. On the other hand, she points to a recent uptick in arrests locally and the administration's efforts to pressure reluctant foreign countries to accept deportees.
"These hires are just going to facilitate the mass deportations that we fear," she said.
She also brings up recent reports that Bloomington was on a tentative Department of Justice list of courts slated for reinforcements to help hear cases of immigrants charged with crimes. As of March, there were more than 300 such cases on the Bloomington docket, out of more than 18,000 nationally, according to EOIR.
But attorneys such as Marc Prokosch say speedier hearings will help many immigrants: When asylum clients wait years for a hearing, evidence can become stale, and key witnesses can vanish. Meanwhile, they are generally unable to travel, reunite with family members and even work, in rarer cases. The Bloomington Court has rescheduled some cases for a "parking date" in late 2019.
Wilson noted that the Bloomington judge appointments slated this year were set in motion during the Obama administration, but vetting and training new judges can take two years.
The judges' association says that, given the backlog in Bloomington, even a team of five judges will have more than 1,000 cases each — well above the 700 the association considers a manageable caseload. And, Marks points out, Bloomington is middle-of-the-pack when it comes to caseloads, she said.
"I agree Bloomington is understaffed and needs help," she said, "but we need it across the country."