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How Trump's New Immigration Plan Will Affect Backlog Of Pending Cases


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Immigration, both legal and unauthorized, has been a central issue for Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president. Last week, he announced his plan for an overhaul to the current system, which emphasizes family ties and employment, moving to a system that would prioritize certain education and employment qualifications.

Overshadowing all of this, however, is the huge backlog of immigration cases already in the system waiting to go before the courts. More than 800,000 cases are waiting to be resolved, according to The New York Times. We wanted to get a sense of how the immigration courts are functioning now and how the new system could affect the courts, so we've called Jeffrey Chase. He is a retired immigration judge in New York. He worked as a staff attorney at the Board of Immigration Appeals. We actually caught up with him at the airport on his way back from a conference on national immigration law, which was held in Austin, Texas.

Mr. Chase, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JEFFREY CHASE: Thank you. Yeah, it seems appropriate to be at JFK Airport talking about immigration. So...

MARTIN: It does.

CHASE: It worked out.

MARTIN: So, first of all, just - as you said, you're just coming back from this conference. Could you just give me - just overall, what are you hearing from your colleagues, particularly your former colleagues in the courts, about how this system is functioning now? How do they experience this backlog? Is it this unending flow of cases that they can't do anything with? Or - how are they experiencing this?

CHASE: Yeah. You know, the American Bar Association just put out a report on the immigration courts recently in which they said it's a dysfunctional system on the verge of collapse. And that was, basically, agreed to by everybody at the conference, including sitting immigration judges. What the judges have said is that the new judges being hired are pretty much being told in their training that they're not really judges, that instead, they should view themselves as loyal employees of the attorney general and of the executive branch of government. They are basically being trained to deny cases not to fairly consider them.

So, you know, the immigration court itself has to be neutral, has to be transparent and has to be immune from political pressures. And unfortunately, the immigration courts have always been housed within the Department of Justice, which is a prosecutorial agency that does not have transparency and which is certainly not immune from political pressures. So there's always been this tension there, and I think they've really come to a head under this administration.

MARTIN: Well, the president has said that his new proposal should improve the process by screening out meritless claims. And I think his argument is that because there will be a clearly defined point system for deciding who is eligible and who is not, that this should deter this kind of flood of cases. What is your response to that?

CHASE: Yeah, I don't think it addresses the court system at all because he's talking - his proposal addresses, you know, the system where people overseas apply for visas and then come here when their green cards are ready. And those are generally not the cases in the courts. The courts right now are flooded with people applying for political asylum because they're fleeing violence in Central America.

MARTIN: Well, can I just interrupt here? So you're just saying - I guess on this specific question, though, you're saying that this proposal to move to a system based on awarding points for certain qualifications would not address the backlog because that is not where applicants come in. Applicants who are a part of this backlog are not affected by that. Is that what you're saying?

CHASE: Yes. Applying for asylum is completely outside of that whole point system and visa system. And that's saying that anyone who appears at the border or at an airport and says, I'm unable to return; I'm in fear for my life, goes on a whole different track.

MARTIN: And so, finally, what would affect this backlog? What would be the most - in your view, based on your experience - the most effective way to address this backlog - this enormous backlog of cases?

CHASE: I think, to begin with, any high-volume court system - criminal courts, you know, outside of the immigration system - can only survive when you have - the two parties are able to conference cases, are able to reach pre-case settlements, are able to reach agreements on things. If you could imagine in the criminal court system, if every jaywalking case had to go through a - you know, a full jury trial and then, you know, get appealed all the way up as high as it could go, that system would be in danger of collapse as well. So I think you have to return to a system where you allow the two sides to negotiate things.

And you also have to give the judges - let them be judges. Give them the tools they need to be judges and the independence they need to be judges. And lastly, you have to prioritize the cases.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I assume that there were different political perspectives at this conference, given that people come from all different sectors of that - of the bar. And I just wondered - and I assume that there are some there who favor more restrictionist methods and some who don't. I was wondering, overall, was there a mood at this conference?

CHASE: I think the overall mood, even amongst the restrictionist ones - the idea that, you know, look; judges have to be allowed to be judges and have to be given the respect and the tools they need to do their job is one that's even held by the more restrictionist ones. And although the government people aren't allowed to speak publicly under this administration, I think privately, they're very happy about a lot of the advocates fighting these things and bringing - making these issues more public.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Chase is a former immigration judge. He's returned to private practice. And we actually caught up with him on his way back from an immigration law conference in Austin, Texas. We actually caught up with him at the airport in New York.

Jeffrey Chase, thank you so much for talking to us.

CHASE: Thank you so much for having me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.