Thousands Of Central American Migrants Seek Asylum In U.S. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, about the increase in Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

Thousands Of Central American Migrants Seek Asylum In U.S.

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For how the surge of migrants coming to the U.S. is playing out in the courts in this country, we're going to turn now to Dana Leigh Marks in San Francisco. She's an immigration judge, and she's speaking to us as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. Welcome back to the program.

DANA LEIGH MARKS: Thank you so much Robert.

SIEGEL: We just heard that this influx could rival the numbers of migrants that cross the U.S. border in 2014. Are you experiencing caseloads stacking up again?

MARKS: We definitely are, and judicial time is a little bit different in the sense that we're still dealing with cases that entered our system back in 2014 and 2015.

SIEGEL: When we spoke to you last, two years ago, you mentioned that you wanted to add more judges to the system. Is that still the case? Was that ever resolved?

MARKS: It is absolutely still the case. We are now at approximately 256 or 258 immigration judges across the entire United States. About 20 of those judges do exclusively or primarily managerial and supervisory duties. And meanwhile, the caseload has increased so that there are over 485,000 pending cases at U.S. immigration courts nationwide.

SIEGEL: As you said, you're still dealing with cases from 2014. I'm curious about what you experienced. I mean, first of all, do people typically show up for their court appearances if they entered the country in 2014?

MARKS: The appearance rates vary tremendously based on whether or not people have attorneys to represent them. The American Immigration Council did a study from fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2014 and found that children who had attorneys appeared at their hearings 95 percent of the time.

So the numbers vary dramatically based on whether or not the individuals have been fortunate enough to locate attorneys to represent them.

SIEGEL: Let's say someone in a political authority said this is nuts. We should be disposing of these cases much, much more quickly. It should be a matter of a few weeks to determine whether somebody should be permitted to stay in the country or be sent back.

I'm asking you as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, could that be done with - if you now have 258 immigration judges nationally, could that be done with 1,000 immigration judges? Is that just not even realistic to think about?

MARKS: Well, everyone in the United States is entitled to due process of law when a case is brought against them, and that includes immigrants in our immigration court system.

And that's an important aspect of our system because this is often the only face of American justice that these individuals are going to see. It's important that they feel that they've been treated fairly while in the United States. It would be highly unlikely that decisions could be made in a court with due process on that kind of a rapid basis.

SIEGEL: But if a few weeks is unreasonably short and we think to hear it two years just sounds terribly long - the case as it is - what would be a measure of time to have cases heard that would be both appropriate and also not too long?

MARKS: It's a great question. Immigrant rights organizations tend to agree that between eight months and a year is a reasonable opportunity for people both to get settled and to gather their evidence. And you're absolutely correct that if you told the immigration courts today to hear all of these cases, there simply is not space on the docket.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the experience over the past year, say, in terms of the number of people being deported based on hearings in these immigration courts?

MARKS: These are very challenging cases, and we often say that we are hearing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting because if someone believes that they are going to be persecuted if returned to their country, it's extremely important that they get a full hearing.

And it's extremely difficult for the judges who are making those decisions to do so in a rushed fashion, so the judges are always balancing the need to fairly adjudicate a case along with knowing that there are hundreds of other cases waiting for us to go ahead and make decisions on behind the one that we're sitting on that day.

SIEGEL: That's Dana Leigh Marks who is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and an immigration judge in San Francisco. Thanks for talking with us once again.

MARKS: Thank you, Robert.

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