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Understaffed immigration judges face rise of migrant cases

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A judge hears the cases of immigrant teens in Los Angeles earlier this week.
Graham Clark
A judge hears the cases of immigrant teens in Los Angeles.

The nation's immigration courts face an unprecedented backlog of cases. Much of that strain falls on the judges, who ultimately decide who can stay and who cannot.

The nation's immigration courts face an unprecedented backlog, with more than 375,000 pending cases working their way through a strained system.

At hearings, immigrants often share details of harrowing journeys or stories of persecution in their home country. Government prosecutors seek to make the case for who should be deported while immigration attorneys fight to keep their clients here. Ultimately, it's up to the judges to determine what the facts of the case are and which immigrant has a lawful, legitimate reason to stay.

Related: US to change how it handles 'voluntary departure' immigrant cases in California

But the judges themselves are being hit with massive case loads and a need to speed up the pace of hearings. In Los Angeles, the 31 active immigration court judges can hear up to 1,600 cases per year, or three times as many as other federal judges.

"Many, many people who have cases pending before the courts are extremely frustrated and upset," said Dana Leigh Marks, a federal immigration judge in San Francisco. The rise of migrant children coming before the courts has only complicated a court system already overwhelmed, she said.

Related: Immigration news: Inside LA's courts, overwhelmed by child migrant cases

To get an inside look at the courts and the pressures that immigration judges face, Leslie Berestein Rojas sat down with Marks, who is also president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the union that represents the judges.

Key highlights from the interview:

How do you conduct your courtroom when a child comes before you in a case?

As a judge one needs to be slower, be more friendly, less formal. In order to give someone due process, you have to make sure that they understand what’s happening in court, why they’re there, what their rights are and what their responsibilities are because they do have responsibilities as well, whether they are children or whether they’re adults. Often we’re asking people to tell us information which is very personal, triggering traumatic memories and fears of terrible events they’ve experienced in the past and so the judge has to be extremely sensitive in those situations to try to create an atmosphere where a child can fully access those memories and is willing to talk about them and that just simply takes time.

What are the dangers when kids don’t have legal representation?

It’s a huge challenge for immigration judges because whether someone has an attorney or whether they don’t, it is our job to ensure that due process is provided to each and every individual that comes before our court. So the strain in some ways is on the judges as well as the people who are with us in court to try to assure that no matter how difficult it is that we are able to get the information we need and help those in front of us present the case that tells their true story, so the decision that is made is the correct decision based on the true facts. But it is a challenge. We can’t leave the courtroom and go out and do the background investigations and gather the testimony of witnesses and do the country condition resources and try to educate the court. Those are things that a skilled attorney is able to do, and that can make the difference in any given case.

What can you tell me about the stresses on the judges, in particular a 2007 study that you were involved with?

The findings showed that immigration judges are more stressed than prison wardens or busy hospital doctors and that wasn’t so much because of the traumatic stories that we hear. We knew we signed up for that assignment, we volunteered for that. But what we didn’t expect was how difficult our working conditions were because of the dramatic lack of resources. That was the primary cause of the stress and burnout among the immigration judges of that time. And all I can say is it’s gotten worse in the past 7-8 years. We are very concerned that the numbers of immigration judges will continue to plummet and hiring will not keep pace with attrition, let alone with the increased needs of this surging and booming case load.

This story is part of a series looking into the immigration court system in Los Angeles, the busiest in the country. Burdened by a massive backlog of cases and long wait times, the courts play a key role in deciding the fate of thousands of immigrants.

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