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SPLC: Reviving Rocket Docket a Serious Misstep

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Gracie Willis, a staff attorney, with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project released the following statement on the proposed Dedicated Docket announced today by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
 
“The Dedicated Docket represents another serious misstep in EOIR’s efforts to manage the backlog of over a million cases in the immigration court system. Tens of thousands of individuals have been awaiting their day in court for years, yet the administration seeks to implement, under a different name, a new ‘rocket docket’ for certain families who have recently crossed the southern border. 
 
“Similar efforts in 2014 and 2018 deprived thousands of families of full and fair hearings under the mistaken belief that they did not have meritorious claims for immigration relief. This travesty of justice cannot continue. Cases should go forward when they are ready – after the individuals have found counsel, identified witnesses, and compiled other evidence necessary to present their cases. 
 
“So long as the restrictive asylum policies of the Trump administration remain in place, the Dedicated Docket will only be a fast-track deportation effort. The Dedicated Docket will do nothing to address the pervasive dysfunction and bias in the immigration court system. It will also create even longer wait times for immigrants whose cases are not on that docket. Pro bono legal service providers in the ten cities named in the memo are already struggling to provide meaningful representation in immigration court proceedings that are stacked against their clients.”
 
In December 2019, the SPLC, along with Innovation Law Lab, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), and Santa Fe Dreamers Project, filed a federal lawsuit challenging DOJ’s years-long mismanagement of the immigration court system and its more recent weaponization of the immigration courts to serve the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. Far from reversing Trump’s harmful policies, today’s announcement effectively embraces one of those policies by pressuring immigration judges to complete complex cases involving families within a short period of time.
 
The lawsuit alleges that the immigration courts have been weaponized against immigrants, as evidenced by:

  • The “family unit” court docket, which stigmatizes the cases of recently arrived families and rushes their court dates, often giving families inadequate time to find an attorney and prepare for their hearings. Today, DOJ formally rescinded the “family unit” docket, only to replace it with the all-too-similar ‘Dedicated Docket.’
     
  • The enforcement metrics policy, which ties judges’ performance evaluations to the number of cases they decide, pushing them to deny more cases more quickly.
     
  • The nationwide backlog of over one million pending immigration cases, which forces asylum seekers to wait three or four years for a court date, created in part by docket reshuffling initiatives like the ‘Dedicated Docket’ DOJ announced today.
     
  • Regions of the country that have effectively become “asylum-free zones,” where immigration courts have granted virtually no asylum claims for the past several years.

In June 2019, Innovation Law Lab and SPLC also released a report, based on over two years of research and focus group interviews with attorneys and former immigration judges from around the country, that documents the failure of the immigration court system to fulfill the constitutional and statutory promise of fair and impartial case-by-case adjudication. The report can be viewed here: The Attorney General’s Judges: How the U.S. Immigration Courts Became a Deportation Tool.