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Trump's Immigration Measures Could Exacerbate Boston Court Backlog02:52Download

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Boston's federal immigration court has one of the largest backlogs of pending cases in the country, and President Trump's executive orders on immigration could push the court even further behind.

The executive orders broadly expand who Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents should prioritize for deportation. Under President Obama, the focus was mostly on tracking and removing violent criminals. Agents now have clearance to really focus on anyone who is in the country illegally.

Carol Rose, executive director of ACLU of Massachusetts, says this means ICE essentially no longer has priorities.

"It's sort of like saying, open season on anyone who may have overstayed their visa," Rose said, "open season on people who look like they might be from a different country — and mostly that's going to be people who are brown and black skinned — open season on pulling people over and hassling them."

This indiscriminate approach, according to Rose, will inevitably lead to more arrests and more strain on the Boston immigration court.

In a statement issued after Trump's executive orders, a New England ICE official said that every day, ICE teams target and arrest criminal aliens and others who are in violation of U.S. immigration laws as part of their routine operations.

The rising backlog of pending cases in Boston immigration court (Courtesy of TRAC's Immigration Project)
The rising backlog of pending cases in Boston immigration court (Courtesy of TRAC's Immigration Project)

A former Boston immigration judge, Eliza Klein, believes plans to vastly expand detention space along the southern border could also exacerbate the backlog of cases in Boston.

"Immigration judges have been put on notice that they may be hearing cases by video from detention facilities, other parts of the country, immigration judges who have not previously actually been assigned to detained cases," she said.

So, for example, a detainee in New Mexico could have a hearing via video conference with an immigration judge sitting here in Boston.

One of the orders calls for an expansion of detention facilities along the southern border. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced plans for a "surge" of immigration judges to the border to process the cases. But it's unclear exactly where these immigration judges will come from.

Susan Church, head of New England's chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the stakes are high for Boston's immigration court.

"It's not clear if they're going to take our judges to bring them down to put them on the border, and if they do that, it's going to dramatically increase our backlog," Church said. "It's going to cause havoc in the immigration court."

Church also says the sweeping new priorities for ICE agents will likely increase the number of cases in Boston immigration court as well.

Rose, with the ACLU of Massachusetts, worries that as the number of immigrant detainees at these border facilities increases, so do the chances their rights could be violated.

"So we're going to be taking people, ripping families apart, spending a lot of taxpayer dollars, to basically put people into deportation centers," she said. "And because our courts are so backlogged, there's a real danger that their due process won't be protected because we'll just be warehousing people for months or years at a time."

According to the online database TRAC Immigration, there are currently close to 16,000 cases pending in Boston's immigration court. That's the ninth-largest backlog in the country. The average wait time is almost two years per case.

With the expanded deportation priorities handed down in Trump's executive order, these numbers are likely to increase.

The Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, has had no comment.

This segment aired on February 23, 2017.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is a reporter representing WBUR on a team of public radio station journalists in the New England News Collaborative.

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