Inside a small courtroom, a half-dozen immigrant teens and their families sat anxiously on wooden benches awaiting their immigration court hearing.
An attorney for a nonprofit gave a quick overview in Spanish of U.S. immigration law and what they needed to do: Speak loudly. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. Be honest with the judge about what drove you to travel to the United States.
Moments later, Judge Lori Bass peered at the crowd through red-rimmed eyeglasses and in a gentle voice asked the children their names, ages and if they were attending school, which many answered with a resounding “yes” in English. She then turned her attention to the moms, dads and uncles sitting beside them.
“The purpose of these proceedings is to see whether the children can stay in the United States or whether they have to leave the United States,” she said. “This is extremely important, and you really need to understand everything.”
The same scene that played out in a Los Angeles courtroom is encountered each year by thousands of Central American children who travel through Mexico and get caught trying to cross the U.S. border. In most cases, they are sent to live with relatives already in the United States. But the U.S. government still tries to deport them, and many of their fates are decided by the country’s 335 immigration judges.
In recent weeks, the judges have been thrust into the center of the political controversy over President Donald Trump’s immigration policy that separated more than 2,000 immigrant children from their parents.
The administration has announced production quotas for the judges, who are lawyers hired by the Department of Justice. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has narrowed the conditions they can consider for asylum, which could affect many Central American cases. And last week, Trump questioned on Twitter the need for judges for these cases at all by posting: “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”
He also recently lashed out at a proposal in Congress to hire more immigration judges to address a chronic backlog of cases, saying an expansion of the bench would lead to “graft.”
The National Association of Immigration Judges issued a statement stressing the importance of their jobs, especially when considering asylum cases that can be life-or-death decisions for immigrants facing persecution in their homeland.
“This is not traffic court. A mistake on an asylum case can result in jail, torture or a death sentence,” Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, the association’s president, said in a statement.
The group opposes the quotas, fearing judges will rush through hearings to try to protect their government jobs.
The judges have long wished to be removed from the Department of Justice to achieve greater independence from the immigration politics of each administration, and now, even more so, Tabaddor said.
“Unfortunately, we just feel this administration has put it on steroids,” she said in a phone interview. “There is no other time than now that has just completely compelled us to have to be removed from the Department as soon as possible.”
James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, has said the Justice Department ensures the courts have access to resources. He believes judges can be fair and handle cases quickly as they strive to work through the backlog.
“To my mind, there’s no tension, and there’s no reason that the judges cannot be both efficient and maintain due process,” he said during a Senate subcommittee hearing earlier this year.
The immigration courts had nearly 700,000 cases in March, including 76,000 cases for children caught on the border alone. It can take months to get a hearing and years to get a decision.
The result is immigrants who are desperate to win asylum so they can bring their families to join them in the United States may find themselves waiting years, while others who have little chance of gaining legal status end up staying longer than they otherwise could.
There has long been a clamor for more immigration judges to keep up with the caseload. The Justice Department plans to hire 100 by the end of the year, and the courts are planning to add more law clerks and to move to an electronic filing system to improve efficiency.
Sessions also wants judges to decide cases more quickly. He isn’t letting them temporarily shelve cases as they once did.
Many immigrant advocates said they believe Sessions is trying to limit the number of immigrants who can even get to court, pointing to his recent decision limiting asylum claims for gang and domestic violence.
Currently, adult immigrants who pass initial asylum screenings after arriving on the U.S. border are allowed a hearing before an immigration judge. If fewer pass the screenings, fewer could make it to court.
In Judge Bass’ courtroom in Los Angeles, it wasn’t clear how the children might try to stay in the United States legally. They were told to look for attorneys and return to court next spring.
One of them, 13-year-old Alfred, was brought to the border from Guatemala by his grandmother four years ago after gang members threatened to kill them if they stayed, said his mother, Karin, who asked that her full name not be used because of threats to her family.
The grandmother was deported and the boy sent to live with his mother. His immigration case was sent to Los Angeles after she moved to California two years ago.
Now, she said, she is focused on finding her son a lawyer to see how he can stay, “with all this from the president, since he wants to kick everyone out of here.”