Trump administration setting up asylum seekers for failure, lawsuit alleges

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Judges' performance now tied to how fast they can clear cases. The result? Immigration courts have become 'deportation machines'

In this Sept. 17, 2019, file photo, migrants who are applying for asylum in the United States go through a processing area at a new tent courtroom at the Migration Protection Protocols Immigration Hearing Facility in Laredo, Texas. Law groups representing immigrants say the immigration court system under the Trump administration has become a “deportation machine.” A lawsuit filed in federal court in Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019 says that instead of being impartial in decisions that often are life-and-death matters, the immigration courts have the ultimate goal of deportation. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The Trump administration is denying due process to asylum seekers by forcing judges to clear as many as three cases per day and fast-tracking the deportation of newly arrived families, six advocacy groups allege in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday.

The Southern Povery Law Center and five other plaintiffs are seeking an injuction from a federal District Court in Portland, Oregon, against policies enacted by the Attorney General they say are doing away with impartiality, don’t give lawyers and advocates adequate time to present a case for their clients and are actually worsening the backlog in immigration court, which now exceeds 1 million cases.

The lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and five others say a directive called Enforcement Metrics Policy is forcing judges in immigration courts to deny applications for asylum in order to keep their jobs.

“The immigration courts make life-and-death decisions every day: vulnerable people seeking asylum in the United States depend on a functioning court system to protect them from persecution, torture, and death. Yet, in the immigration courts, the tradition of judicial independence has been turned upside down,” the lawsuit against president Trump and Attorney General William Barr says.

Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center and a lead attorney in the case, said that some parts of the United States have become “asylum-free zones” because immigration courts in 23 cities have denied more than 85 percent of applications for asylum. El Paso, Texas, has the highest denial rate at 96.6 percent, followed by Atlanta with 96.4 percent and Houston with 95.6 percent.

This graphic from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows which cities have the highest asylum denial rates in the United States.

“We’ve come to call the current situation a deportation machine, and it really is because it is virtually impossible, particularly in some jurisdictions around the country, to effectively represent individuals in immigration court proceedings,” Crow said in a teleconference on Wednesday.

“Over the past three years, the Trump administration has eroded any remaining legitimacy the immigration court system still had, making it almost impossible for legal service providers to give meaningful representation to clients threatened with deportation,” she said. “The lawsuit we are filing today is intended to fight back. It’s no secret that immigration courts are in crisis and that previous administrations have failed to address many long-standing problems … but the Trump administration has gone much further by weaponizing the system into a deportation machine where applicants for asylum are set up to fail.”

She said immigration judges have been directed to clear 700 cases per year in order to receive a satisfactory rating. That amounts to nearly three cases per day and pushes judges to deny cases quickly so as to not risk losing their jobs.

Another policy that undermines rights set fort in the Immigration and Naturalization Act is the family docketing directive, which rushes cases of newly arrived family units, Crow said.

And for all the pressure exerted on immigration judges, the court docket has surpassed 1 million cases under the Trump administration and migrants not in custody face waits of three to four years to have their cases heard, she said.

“We seek an order that makes clear what has long been obvious to anyone whose work or life has been touched by an immigration court: The court system as it is designed and currently functions is unlawful. The prez and AG have allowed their anti-immigrant agenda to dictate the way the court system operates. our goal is to block the draconian policies and practices that prevent fair impartial adjudication in the immigration system, and to stop the ongoing harm that they’ve caused,” Crow said.

Linda Corchado, director of legal services for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said it’s extremely difficult to present a case on behalf of asylum seekers without adequate time to gather evidence, often from another part of the world, and that in cases where hearings are delayed for years, that evidence may no longer be available or witnesses’ memory may fail. She blamed the chaos in immigration court on politics.

“As the political rhetoric around immigration sharpened, we have noticed a distinct decline in the treatment our clients receive in immigration court,” she said. “Our clients should have the right to a decision based solely on the record created during the procedure, but these external factors are increasingly becoming outcome determinants.”

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