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Immigration courts have been overwhelmed in recent years. So many cases have piled up that the backlog is approaching 700,000 cases. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking several steps to speed up the process, including imposing quotas on immigration judges for the first time. Critics say the administration is trying to deport more people without due process. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He joins us now. And, Joel, first of all, how did this backlog get so bad?
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, first off, there are just not that many judges. And there's a huge number of new cases, and they're just piling up on the docket in recent years. More people are getting arrested under Trump, and more people are coming to the U.S. from Central America. And what bothers Jeff Sessions is that many of these immigrants are not being detained. They're allowed to go free and live in the U.S. while they're waiting for their day in court. But that can take years because of the backlog, and Sessions wants to speed this whole process up so that the people who should be allowed to stay in the country can stay and the people who should not get deported more quickly.
CORNISH: We mentioned imposing quotas on immigration judges. What else is the attorney general suggesting?
ROSE: Well, the attorney general has broad authority over immigration courts. They're part of the Justice Department. The rules are different than they are for other courts. In fact, Sessions as the attorney general can set many of the rules, and he's been doing that quite a bit. Now the Justice Department is setting quotas on how many cases judges must complete each year, meaning judges have to make a decision in the case. The quota is going to be 700 cases per year to start off with. And the Department of Justice says that's a reasonable target. I spoke to DOJ spokesman Devin O'Malley.
DEVIN O'MALLEY: What this means is that judges will have to complete about three cases per day. I'll let your listeners determine if that's a reasonable expectation or not. But we feel that it is.
ROSE: O'Malley says 700 cases is actually not that big of a stretch from what the average judge is completing already.
CORNISH: Some judges are already objecting to this, though, right? What's their argument?
ROSE: Well, the judges don't like that the performance - that their performance evaluations are going to be tied to the quotas. They say their decisions should just be based on the facts of a particular case, not on the need to move cases through more quickly. I talked to Ashley Tabaddor. She's the head of the union that represents immigration judges.
ASHLEY TABADDOR: Judges are supposed to be free from these external pressures. If you tie quotas and deadlines to someone's livelihood, you have compromised the very integrity of the immigration court system.
ROSE: And lawyers who handle the cases in immigration court agree with that. They say the pressure on judges could influence their decisions and that sometimes immigrants just need more time to put their cases together. And what if the judge decides to close the case because they're worried about meeting a particular quota?
CORNISH: What are some of the other changes on the way?
ROSE: The attorney general - well, this - they get down into the weeds, but let me give you an example. One thing that really irritates Attorney General Jeff Sessions is called administrative closure. And basically this allows judges to put cases on hold indefinitely, and the immigrants in the case are essentially allowed to stay in the country. Session (ph) wants to limit this practice or maybe get rid of it altogether.
But immigration lawyers say there are legitimate reasons that you need administrative closure. What if an immigrant is waiting, for example, for a visa or a green card? Those are things that are beyond the control of immigration judges. And lawyers say that those cases should be put on hold, or else the immigrants in them could be deported while they're waiting for a decision on their green card or on their visa.
CORNISH: In the time we have left - any of this look like it will help the backlog?
ROSE: The Department of Justice says yes. They say that hiring more judges and these changes would be a good start. But the immigration judges and lawyers I've talked to are skeptical. They think these changes could just lead to more appeals and that really they could backfire and make the whole system move even slower.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.