In a small, windowless Virginia courtroom, federal immigration judge Rodger Harris heard a string of bond requests this week from immigrants held in jail as they faced deportation. The detainees appeared by video. Harris used a remote control to move the camera around in his courtroom so the detainees could see their lawyers appearing in-person before the judge. The lawyers spoke about their clients’ family ties, job history, and forthcoming asylum petitions, and downplayed any previous criminal record. Harris told detainees that if he released them on bond, hearings set for March or April would be pushed back until at least the summer, reports BuzzFeed News.
Elsewhere, hearings are scheduled four, five, or even six years out. Already facing a crushing caseload, immigration judges are bracing for more strain as the Trump administration pushes ahead with an aggressive ramp-up of immigration enforcement with no public commitment so far to aid backlogged courts. Immigration courts are an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. As of the end of January, there were more than 540,000 cases pending in immigration courts. The union of immigration judges says more judges are needed to handle the caseload, as well as more space, technological upgrades, and other resources. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly lamented the “unacceptable delay” in immigration court cases that allowed individuals who illegally entered the U.S. to remain here for years. It isn’t clear yet if immigration judges and staff are exempt from a government hiring freeze ordered by Trump. There are 73 vacancies in immigration courts out of 374 judgeships. “Everybody’s pretty stressed,” said Paul Schmidt, who retired as an immigration judge in June. “How are you going to throw more cases into a court with 530,000 pending cases? It isn’t going to work.”