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U.S. announces effort to expedite court cases of migrants who cross the border illegally

White House announces new asylum regulation
U.S. empowers asylum officials to reject migrants earlier in process 04:24

The Biden administration on Thursday announced an effort to shorten the time it takes for U.S. immigration judges to decide the asylum cases of certain migrants who enter the country illegally along the border with Mexico.

Migrant adults released by federal border officials after crossing into the U.S. unlawfully will be eligible to be placed in the program, under a joint initiative between the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, which oversees the nation's immigration courts.

The effort's objective, senior U.S. officials said, is to speed up the process of granting asylum to migrants with legitimate cases, and rejecting weak cases. Federal officials under Republican and Democratic administrations have said the current years-long timeframe to decide asylum cases serves as a "pull factor" that attracts migration by economic migrants, who don't qualify for humanitarian protection, but who often use the asylum system to work in the U.S.

Over the past years, the backlog of cases received by the immigration courts has ballooned, leading to wait times that often surpass four years. Fewer than 800 immigration judges are overseeing more than 3.5 million unresolved cases.

Single migrant adults who plan to live in five major U.S. cities — Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City — could be selected for the new process, which will instruct immigration judges to issue decisions within 180 days, instead of years.

Since the Obama administration, the U.S. has set up several similar programs, colloquially known as "rocket dockets." While officials have portrayed them as ways to discourage illegal immigration, advocates have said the rocket dockets trample on migrants' due process by making it more difficult for them to secure lawyers in time for their hearings.

The scope of Thursday's announcement was not immediately clear, as U.S. officials declined to provide an estimate of the number of migrants who would be placed in the fast-track proceedings. Ten judges have been assigned to the program, one of the officials said during a call with reporters.

The latest rocket docket is the most recent step taken by the Biden administration to curtail unlawful border crossings, which spiked last year to record levels. Last week, the Biden administration published a proposed rule that would allow immigration officials to more quickly reject and deport asylum-seeking migrants who are deemed to endanger public safety or national security.

Last year, the administration implemented a regulation that presumes migrants are ineligible for U.S. asylum if they enter the country illegally after failing to request refuge in another country. It paired that policy with a vast expansion of avenues for some would-be migrants to enter the U.S. legally. 

President Biden, who has increasingly embraced more restrictive border policies, has also been considering a more sweeping measure that would further restrict asylum for those entering the U.S. illegally. The move, which would rely on a presidential authority known as 212(f), would almost certainly face legal challenges.

Administration officials have argued they are exploring unilateral immigration actions due to the collapse of a border security agreement that the White House forged with a bipartisan group of senators earlier this year. While the deal would have severely restricted asylum and increased deportations without legalizing unauthorized immigrants, most Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, rejected it outright.

"This administrative step is no substitute for the sweeping and much-needed changes that the bipartisan Senate bill would deliver, but in the absence of congressional action we will do what we can to most effectively enforce the law and discourage irregular migration," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement Thursday.

The Biden administration has faced unprecedented levels of migration along the southern border, including over two million migrant apprehensions in each of the past two years.

Migrants southern border
Migrants line up to be transferred by U.S. Border Patrol after having crossed the Bravo River in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua State, Mexico, on April 18, 2024. HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images

In recent months, however, migrant crossings have plunged, bucking historical patterns that have seen migration soar in the spring. Last month, Border Patrol recorded nearly 129,000 migrant apprehensions, down from 137,000 in March, according to government data. U.S. officials have credited increased deportations and an immigration crackdown by Mexico for the surprising drop.

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