Trump’s agenda may have gotten off to a slow start in Congress, but his administration has moved quickly in another area: immigration enforcement. Immigration arrests during Trump’s first 100 days were up 37.6 percent from the same period a year ago, according to a report released this week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Roughly 75 percent of those arrested had been convicted of non-immigration offenses, but approximately 10,800 were noncriminal arrests, up more than 150 percent percent from 2016.
Trump hasn’t just vowed to arrest undocumented immigrants, however. He has promised to deport them. And that could be a challenge: The big increase in noncriminal arrests could create frenzy in immigration courts that are already overloaded with cases. “On one hand the administration is saying they have these priorities and they’re going on the worst of the worst,” said Joshua Breisblatt, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council. “When they came out with these executive orders, all they actually did was make everybody a priority.”
When Trump took office, he inherited an immigration court system with a backlog of more than half a million pending cases, with proceedings often taking years to be completed. The situation has gotten worse since Trump took office: As of April, the backlog had grown to 585,930 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. But the problem is nothing new: The lack of judges to oversee the rapid increase of immigration cases has been an issue for over a decade. According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, there are currently 318 immigration judges serving nationwide out of the 374 positions authorized by Congress. In March, Trump requested an increase of nearly $80 million in his budget for the Department of Justice to hire 75 additional immigration judge teams. However, last year Human Rights First, a nonprofit advocacy organization, estimated that the court needs 524 judges to work through the backlog of cases.
Along with funding the additional judges, the administration could pursue efforts to bypass immigration courts in general. In a memo in February, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, highlighted the backlog in court cases as a justification for expedited removal, in which people can be deported without going through the usual court process. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, anyone who arrives in the U.S. without valid documents or is apprehended within 100 miles of the border within 14 days of arrival is subjected to expedited removal. But the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to apply the expedited process to anyone apprehended in the country if they can’t show they’ve consistently been here for two years. Breisblatt said the administration’s flexibility is limited, however. “There’s only so much DHS can do without violating their due process,” he said.
Congress may soon take steps to further expand the president’s authority to enforce immigration laws. The House Judiciary committee this week considered bills that would authorize both ICE and Citizenship and Immigration Services to increase the number of deportation officers, among other provisions.