The United States is on the verge of reversing an immigration court backlog that has been building for years, Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified Tuesday.
Immigration hawks long have pointed to the backlog, now about 600,000 cases, as a factor in undermining enforcement. Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee that the backlog has barely grown during the past two to three months as a result of 50 additional immigration judges who have started working since President Donald Trump took office.
Sessions said the Department of Justice has shortened the time for hiring new judges and hopes to bring an additional 360 to 370 on board.
“I’m told by the additional work we’re doing, by January, we will not be adding to the backlog but hopefully reducing it,” he testified. “That would be a real change in the trends that we were heading on.”
Andrew “Art” Arthur, a former immigration judge who now is director of law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, said a combination of increased staffing and fewer border crossings has the department on the right track.
“We have turned a corner,” he told LifeZette. “We may see a slight increase, but we are going to level off and start to see a decline.”
Arthur said the federal government needs to do a better job of detecting fraudulent claims.
Arthur said the caseload may rise in the short term as immigration courts work through an unusually high number of notices to appear for hearings that had been served on illegal immigrants during the previous administration but had not been filed in court. He said it is unclear why it has taken so long to file the cases, but he added that it could run into the tens of thousands.
One possibility, Arthur said, is that the previous administration wanted to hide a surge in the number of illegal immigrants claiming they had a “credible fear” of persecution if forced to return to their home countries.
That number surged under former President Barack Obama. Arthur said 88 percent of people who get immigration hearings based on claims of credible fear win. But he added that many others who get hearings based on bogus claims end up absconding.
The federal government, he said, needs to do a better job of detecting fraudulent claims.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told LifeZette that the Obama administration sent a clear signal to people trying to cross the border without permission that they could stay — at least temporarily — if they uttered the phrase “credible fear” to border agents.
“That was available to get you through the door and what happens, happens later — if it happens at all,” he said.
Sessions, in his House testimony, called on Congress to narrow the criteria by which credible fear claims are judged. Doing so could have “a very substantial impact,” he said.
“I remember when the bill passed, and I remember an experienced senator — I’ll say, Sen. John Kyle of Arizona — he said, ‘This is a huge thing; you don’t know how big this is going to turn out to be,'” he said. “And it took a number of years, but his prediction proved to be correct.”
Sessions defended his decision to recommend ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for illegal immigrants brought to America as children. He said the program, which the Obama administration created by executive action, was not lawful.
“And now the issue is in the hands of Congress, really where it belongs,” he said.
Sessions said Congress has the authority to grant a full amnesty to the DACA beneficiaries, but he urged lawmakers to consider the consequences.
“A price will be paid if that’s done, but sometimes circumstances are such that it may need to be done,” he said. “But we need to be careful.”