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Immigration courts swamped

| Saturday, March 4, 2017, 10:54 p.m.

ATLANTA — Everyone was in place for the hearing in Atlanta immigration court: the Guinean man hoping to stay in the U.S., his attorney, a prosecutor, a translator and the judge. But because of some missing paperwork, it was all for nothing.

When the government attorney said he hadn't received the case file, Judge J. Dan Pelletier rescheduled the proceeding. Everybody would have to come back another day.

The sudden delay was just one example of the inefficiency witnessed by an Associated Press writer who observed hearings over two days in one of the nation's busiest immigration courts. And that case is one of more than half a million weighing down court dockets across the country as President Trump steps up enforcement of immigration laws.

Even before Trump became president, the nation's immigration courts were burdened with a record number of pending cases, a shortage of judges and frequent bureaucratic breakdowns. Cases involving immigrants not in custody commonly take two years to resolve and sometimes as many as five.

The backlog and insufficient resources are problems stretching back at least a decade, said San Francisco Immigration Judge Dana Marks, speaking as the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

“It would be a shame if the mistakes of the past continue to be repeated,” Marks said, citing previous attempts to ramp up enforcement without providing adequate resources to the courts.

Trump's recent executive orders and subsequent memos from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly have focused on hiring more enforcement agents to find and detain people in the country illegally, but the administration has been largely silent on beefing up immigration courts.

The system includes 58 courts in 27 states. Their job is to decide whether noncitizens charged with violating immigration laws should be allowed to stay in the U.S. Immigration judges work for the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, not the judicial branch.

People appearing in immigration court are generally considered to have the right to an attorney, but the court isn't required to provide one for free as in criminal cases. Rulings can be appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and board decisions can be appealed to a federal appeals court.

Of 374 authorized immigration judge positions, 301 are filled. Fifty more candidates are in various stages of the hiring process, which typically takes about a year, said Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

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