Day 6

Trump's policies have left U.S. immigration courts in shambles, says immigration reporter

The Marshall Project's Julia Preston says the U.S. immigration court system is totally overwhelmed, not only by the number of asylum seekers, but by changes made by the Trump administration.

'It really is on the brink of collapse,' says the Marshall Project's Julia Preston

Migrants, including a child, walk back to Mexico after applying for asylum in the U.S. on International Bridge 1 Las Americas, which connects Laredo, Tex. with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on July 18. (Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

With the threat of increased raids by U.S. immigration officials looming over undocumented migrants, some say that the court system that hears their cases is near collapse.

Julia Preston, a former New York Times immigration reporter who now reports for the Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, says new rules implemented by the Trump administration are behind the years-long waits for immigration court hearings.

Those changes include cancelling former president Barack Obama's immigration priorities, cutting the number of asylum seekers the U.S. will accept each year and former attorney general Jeff Sessions's decision to eliminate immigration judges' authority to dismiss cases.

"When the Trump administration took office, there were 500,000 cases in the courts. Now it's approaching a million cases," she said.

Last weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump said raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, had increased.

Immigrants and their advocates were on standby for mass arrests, but there were reports of only a few low-profile operations in cities including New York, Denver and Miami.

If that changes, however, Preston says it's unlikely that immigration courts will have space for the additional deportation claims.

Preston spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. Here is part of that conversation.

Trump says this backlog is caused by the increase in the number of migrants coming across the border who are now seeking asylum. Is that true?

We ran some data for the Marshall Project and what we found is that the backlog has increased by almost three times more than new cases coming into the courts. 

So an argument that the administration makes that 'the court's working fine, the problem is there are just too many immigrants' — this is not borne out by the data. 

Detained migrant men are seen at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Tex. on July 12. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters)

Your argument is that measures that the Trump administration has taken have specifically made this backlog worse and you illustrated with these particular cases. So let's look at some of the individuals that you profile. 

One of them is Manuel Bravo García. What happened to Mr. García and what does it reveal about the problem? 

Manuel was 17 years old, he's from Mexico. He was walking down the street one day in his village in Colima when he was shot twice by two gunmen on a motorcycle. He doesn't even know who these individuals were. 

His knee was shattered, shot through the stomach. He was in a hospital in Mexico for two weeks protected by security so the gunmen didn't come back and finish him off. 

He made it to Tijuana. He hobbled across the bridge to the United States and asked for asylum. Three months after he was here, his mother was murdered by the same gunmen in Mexico. So this would have been a pretty straightforward asylum case based on fear of persecution. 

What changes did the Trump administration make that made this case not so straightforward? 

The former attorney general Jeff Sessions issued a decision that people who are victims of gang violence or domestic violence — what he called private criminal activity — could no longer be eligible for asylum. 

So Manuel's case that might have moved pretty quickly through the courts is now this tremendously complicated and challenging case. And because of the delays in the system, his first hearing to present his case is more than two years away. 

Manuel Bravo García, 19, fled to the United States after he was shot by gunmen in his home village in Colima, Mex, according to reporter Julia Preston. She shared García's story with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. (Ryan David Brown/The Marshall Project)

If someone is before the court now, how long might they wait before they get their hearing? 

There are some courts in the country — the biggest ones Los Angeles, New York — where the first hearing that is available on a judge's calendar is in 2023. 

And what's the average wait? 

Across the country people are waiting at least two years just to get a first hearing. These are people who have been shot. They're fleeing from gang violence. Their husbands have been shot. They've been raped. 

Two years at least. You also wrote about Alexa Espinoza, what happened to her? She's a young girl. What can we learn from her case? 

Alexa is a 15-year-old teenager who was brought to the United States by her parents when she was a toddler. She has no memory of ever having been in Mexico. And she was part of an application, by her father, for a green card. 

Her father came forward to the authorities. He's been undocumented for a number of years, but he did have a legal basis to obtain a green card, which is a residency visa in the United States. 

The family ran afoul of a new policy by the Trump administration, which is that any undocumented person who applies for a green card or a benefit, as they call it, from the immigration system and is denied then is automatically issued a warrant for deportation. 

And so this 15-year-old girl, when they went to the office and had the interview, her father discovered to his surprise and shock that there was a deportation order outstanding for him that had been issued many years before that he wasn't even aware of. 

His application was denied and now his daughter, 15-year-old, is now in deportation proceedings, which are going to be very hard fought and take a very long time to resolve and present a real possibility that she could be deported. 

Protesters marched to offices of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 13 in Chicago, Ill. The rally called for an end to criminalization, detention and deportation of migrants. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

You've spoken to judges and lawyers and court staff who are trying to work under these circumstances. What have they told you about their ability to do their jobs now? 

The Trump administration also reached in and changed many of the sort of day-to-day procedures — the way the court works — to make it much less flexible for judges to decide what kinds of cases they're going to hear, when they're going to hear cases. 

They curtail the flexibility of prosecutors to decide what cases to pursue and the result of all of this is that all of these cases are piling up in the court system and there's a lot of pressure from the administration for the courts and the judges to move faster and faster and faster.

But the actual day-to-day way that they have to handle these cases is just slowing things down.

So there's a feeling in this court system that it really is on the brink of collapse. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Julia Preston, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.