With only 254 immigration judges available to hear 300,000 cases currently somewhere in the immigration judicial system, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun a review of its to determine who may be eligible for a type of ICE amnesty known as “administrative closure.”
Speaking during a March hearing before the Homeland Subcommittee in the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives, ICE Director John Morton said his agency has already reviewed the cases of 142,212 illegal aliens who are not currently in custody. ICE concluded that 13,175 of them should start the process toward administrative closure, Morton said.
Those who enter that process will have to pass a background check and clear other administrative hurdles before they have their cases put into “closure.”
Ben Winograd, a staff attorney at the left-leaning American Immigration Council, told The Daily Caller that the ICE review is little more than an effort to clear its backlog. The latest data from the Department of Justice indicates that just 254 immigration court judges have about 300,000 cases on their dockets at any given time.
“The numbers don’t add up,” Winograd said, suggesting that the problem is merely one of statistics. “The real answer is to reduce the pool of people that can be put into proceedings.”
While most immigration analysts agree that the U.S. lacks a sufficient number of immigration judges, not everyone wants to release illegal aliens through a virtual safety valve.
Jessica Vaughan, an analyst with the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies, told theDC that ICE’s unilateral action is hijacking the judicial system’s authority. (RELATED: More on illegal immigration)
“These folks were already in the immigration system,” Vaughan said. “They had cases in front of immigration judges. Now, ICE will step in and subvert that process and simply find them all innocent and let them free.”
Alabama Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt, who chairs the Subcommittee on Homeland Security, was equally scathing.
“Last year we provided funding for 34,000 detention beds, the highest level in history,” Aderholt said in a statement, “but despite the expansion of Secure Communities into new jurisdictions as well as a large known illegal population, ICE has failed to fill those beds.”
The review is part of ICE’s policy, as laid out in a controversial June 2011 memo from ICE director John Morton.
In an email to the subcommittee that accompanied his written testimony, Morton said the case review’s goal “has been to speed the removal of criminal aliens from the United States. Low priority cases of individuals with no criminal records and who pose no public safety concerns are being administratively closed.” The American Immigration Council provided TheDC with a copy of that email.
Last month, TheDC reported exclusively that ICE only has enough beds to hold one out of every ten suspected illegal aliens that its officers detain.
Both Winograd and Vaughan agree that some ICE immigration cases have been fast-tracked, taking less than a month. But Vaughan added that those cases are limited to suspected illegal aliens who are already in custody. ICE has just 34,000 beds at its disposal, while roughly 300,000 people have currently pending cases in immigration court.
For the rest, said Winograd, cases can take years. He said his group has seen some suspects spend as long as five years in immigration courts.
With hiring freezes at all federal agencies, Winograd said, increasing the number of judges isn’t an option.
“The hardliners on immigration want to have it both ways,” he said. Advocates of tough immigration enforcement policies, he observed, are also typically the first to demand budget cuts at all levels.
While Vaughan said hiring more judges would be a good option, there are also other ways to reduce the number of people in immigration courts. Rep. Aderholt has suggested broader use of videoconferencing to speed court appearances.
Vaughn insisted that ICE has been far too conservative in using a process called expedited removal, which allows the agency to quickly deport some suspected illegal aliens without a judicial order.