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Cities like Los Angeles with large immigration case backlogs could get more judges

Female detainees get ready to go to immigration court via video feed at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Detention Facility in Adelanto on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
FILE PHOTO: Female detainees get ready for immigration court proceedings via video feed at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Detention Facility in Adelanto on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016.

With a backlog of immigration cases that's the second highest in the country, Los Angeles could see more immigration judges assigned to it in coming days.

Executive Office for Immigration Review spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said Monday that while plans are still being finalized, several cities could get more judges. The agency handles the nation's immigration courts.

According to the agency, judges were being redeployed to 10 locations starting Monday. These include Chicago; Eloy, Arizona; and Pompano Beach, Florida, along with locations in Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico. Some of the judges have gone to courtrooms in or near detention centers.

The judges aren't new hires, she said, but rather existing staff being reassigned to areas where there is high demand.

The move comes after President Trump signed an executive order in January calling for heavier enforcement against unauthorized immigrants. That action is expected to create more load in the immigration court system, which adjudicates cases involving detainees, immigrants with criminal records, asylum seekers and others fighting deportation.

Los Angeles has almost 49,000 pending immigration cases as of last month, according to EOIR spokeswoman Mattingly. Only New York has more cases. Nationwide, more than 550,000 cases are awaiting processing — a record number, she said.

The immigration courts have become increasingly strained in recent years, as more asylum seekers from Central America and others who require a day in court have come to the U.S. 

Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate generally agree that action is needed to reduce the immigration court backlogs.

"It makes sense for the Trump administration to try and be more strategic about how the immigration judges are deployed, and that they are available to address the most serious backlogs of cases in areas of the country where the backlogs are growing the fastest," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates immigration restrictions.

Vaughan said while additional enforcement could add to the backlogs, federal agents will also have more discretion to ask for expedited removals.

Immigration attorneys have sought better court conditions for defendants, and more legal representation for those facing deportation proceedings. Unlike in the criminal justice system, there is no automatic representation provided for those facing removal from the country.

"The system is overwhelmed, and it has been overwhelmed for years," said Judy London, directing attorney for Public Counsel in Los Angeles, a legal advocacy group that represents immigrants. "We have always been concerned with having an adequate number of judges and resources for the courts...we think greater resources for the court system leads to fair adjudications."

But London said she's skeptical about the administration's plans to redeploy judges. "We don't have a lot of faith right now in this administration's approach to immigration," she said. "The devil is in the details."