A Former Immigration Judge On The Current Situation What kind of caseload awaits immigration judges with a new zero-tolerance policy? Former immigration judge Paul Wickham Schmidt talks with NPR's Scott Simon.


A Former Immigration Judge On The Current Situation

A Former Immigration Judge On The Current Situation

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What kind of caseload awaits immigration judges with a new zero-tolerance policy? Former immigration judge Paul Wickham Schmidt talks with NPR's Scott Simon.


The Trump administration zero tolerance policy has increased an already enormous backlog of cases for the nation's immigration courts. There are currently more than 700,000 cases pending. Paul Wickham Schmidt was an immigration judge for 13 years. He retired in 2016. Judge Schmidt joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

PAUL SCHMIDT: It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Is the immigration court system up to handling even more cases?

SCHMIDT: No, they're not even up to handling the ones they have now.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that. How long does it take, for example, for a case to work its way through the courts?

SCHMIDT: Well, when I retired, I was setting cases on the last day - I was on the bench June 30 of 2016. I think I was setting them for the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022. I've heard they have more judges now, so maybe they've brought some of that in. But I think it's probably still 2020, 2021.

SIMON: And why?

SCHMIDT: Well, there's too many cases and not enough judges. And the dockets have been mismanaged by the Department of Justice over the last three administrations - something I call aimless docket reshuffling.

SIMON: What's that?

SCHMIDT: Each new administration comes in, and they change the priorities of the last administration. And therefore, a new group of cases has moved to the front of the docket. And the cases that are the oldest that should be heard are moved to the back of the docket. So some cases - and particularly ones that don't fit into anybody's priorities - basically never get heard because they just keep getting displaced by new priorities. And, of course, the priorities change - not only with each administration. But sometimes within an administration, the priorities change several times. So that disrupts dockets.

SIMON: President Trump rejected a call for more immigration judges this week. He said, quote, "we don't want judges. We want security on the border." How do you react?

SCHMIDT: Well, I don't think he understands the law and the constitution. According to the Supreme Court, everybody in the United States, regardless of status, has a right to due process under law. And you're not going to get due process from more border patrol agents. You're going to have to get judges of some type - give individuals fair hearings before an impartial decision-maker.

SIMON: So the piercing cries of children that so many of us heard this week - those youngsters might not have the cases of their parents heard for - what? - two, three, four more years?

SCHMIDT: Well, that is if they could get out of detention. But, of course, the administration has announced that they're going to detain 100 percent of the new arrivals who cross at a place other than a port of entry. And they're going to expedite their cases. In fact, the president, as part of his executive order, ordered a new round of aimless docket reshuffling, which means those cases will go to the top of the front of the line. Other cases that are ready to be heard will go to the back of the line. And judges that are handling dockets here and in other places will, in all likelihood, be moved to the border to hear these cases leaving nobody to hear the cases on their dockets - in Arlington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, wherever they regularly sit. So it will be a total mess in my view.

SIMON: Retired Immigration Judge Paul Wickham Schmidt, thanks so much.

SCHMIDT: Thank you.

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