While party lines run deep on immigration reform, perhaps one point not up for debate is that America’s current system is broken – just ask Judge Dana Leigh Marks, who works in immigration courts on the front lines.
“The result of ignoring the immigration courts for so long and not giving us sufficient resources has resulted in massive dysfunction,” Marks, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told “Power Players.”
“We call ourselves the ‘Legal Cinderellas’ in the Department of Justice, because we feel that we have been ignored resource-wise,” Marks said.
“Last year $18 billion was spent on immigration law enforcement and only 1.7 perfect of that went to the courts,” she later added, noting that a majority of that funding goes to border patrol and the technology used to police fences.
Marks cited non-functioning equipment and understaffed offices as key culprits in the “massive dysfunction” that immigration judges are currently facing. “It’s those kinds of everyday problems that make the system far less efficient, effective and accurate,” she said.
But the shortage of judges and resources doesn’t translate into cost-savings for taxpayers. Instead, Marks said it only makes things more expensive.
“The big picture for the American public is that it does cost more money,” she said. “People remain in detention longer waiting for court hearings, cases become stale in the process. … It means that circumstances change during the course of the litigation and people will ask to have their decisions reconsidered.”
Another key issue at play is the staggering backlog of individuals waiting for immigration judges to adjudicate them.
“Nationwide there’s more than 375,000 pending cases before 227 immigration judges who are sitting in the field,” Marks said. This works out to more than 1,500 cases per judge, but individual caseloads vary across the country. For example, Marks’ docket in San Francisco has more than 2,400 pending cases.
Marks estimated that any undocumented woman or child caught sneaking across the border since May 1of this year has been brought to court within roughly a month of their arrest. “Because of the concern that one of the magnets or attractors bringing people here might be the delays in the court, the administration has chosen to flip the docket and bring recent border crossers to the court within 21 to 28 days,” she said.
While the docket flip has meant that recent immigrants get their cases heard sooner and more quickly, those who arrived before May 1 wait much longer — an average of 14 months before their first arraignment-like hearing. “Even if they were ready to go for their final day hearing that would take us another three and a half or four years to schedule,” Marks explained.
Another negative side effect of rushing recent immigrants through the court system, Marks said, is that it’s harder for immigrants to find available attorneys, both paid and volunteer, who aren’t already swamped with other cases.
On whether she and her colleagues are under added pressure to turn cases over quickly and to get them adjudicated, Marks said there’s been no formal request, but an implied one.
“There is not direct pressure applied to us, but we read the newspaper. When we shift our docket and have juveniles before us sooner than the case that I put off in order to hear that juvenile’s case, that person may suffer, “she said. “They’re in legal limbo, they may lose contact with witnesses that they need, the laws may change. …There’s a lot of personal price that people pay for the docket being so unwieldy at this time.”
For more of the interview with Judge Marks, including why the lack of immigration court resources could hinder the advancement of American immigration law, watch this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Jordyn Phelps, Serena Marshall, Gary Westphalen, Tom D’Annibale and David Girard contributed to this episode.
- Politics & Government
- Immigration Issues
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The legal Cinderellas: Immigration judge says court system has been ignored, underfunded
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