El CENTRO, Calif., May 30 (UPI) -- Attorneys representing immigrants along the U.S. border with Mexico say an effort to expedite court proceedings and clear a backlog of cases could lead to thousands of deportations without proper consideration.
Immigration attorneys are bracing for an influx of court proceedings after Attorney General Jeff Sessions on May 2 ordered more prosecutors and judges to courts along the border in an effort to alleviate a backlog of cases.
Melissa Lopez, an immigration attorney and executive director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas, said she's worried about the courts rushing cases. DMRS provides free legal services to immigrants and refugees.
Lopez said the government is implementing an aggressive approach that could limit each migrant's ability to have a fair opportunity to seek benefits and resources they may be eligible for -- including an ability to hire a lawyer.
"It's concerning when people are not getting the opportunity to fully prepare for a case," she said. "When the consequences of losing a case is deportation, it's obviously very important for everyone to have an opportunity to go through the adequate process."
In total, 35 prosecutors and 18 immigration judges are expected to arrive in courts along the border in the next several weeks. Seven of those prosecutors will be assigned to the Western District of Texas, which includes El Paso, San Antonio, Austin and Midland.
Some of those judges have begun to hear cases through video teleconferencing, while the Department of Justice evaluates when the judges will travel to their courts.
In late April, around 1,200 migrants from Central America arrived at the U.S. border. Their arrival sparked an effort by the U.S. government to discourage migrants from continuing to enter the country illegally.
Sessions called the so-called caravan of migrants an attempt to undermine U.S. law and overwhelm the immigration system. In response, he implemented a "zero-tolerance" policy in which he asked federal prosecutors to prioritize all criminal immigration offenses. He supplemented that policy with the latest directive to add staffing for the courts.
Immigration activists say the federal government is overreacting to the uptick of border crossings made in the two previous months.
The number of apprehensions and illegal border crossings has been dropping steadily for more than a decade, down from about 1.8 million in 2005 to less than 490,000 in 2017, the lowest number in 37 years, according to U.S. Border Patrol data.
Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said the directive is part of the administration's efforts to increase efficiency and reduce a backlog of cases.
About 700,000 immigration cases are pending in courts throughout the country, with more than 100,000 of those in Texas, the DOJ said.
"The prosecutors that will be sent to the border will handle the expected increase of cases dealing with criminal violations, including illegal entry," O'Malley said. "The expected increase in immigration court cases leads to the need to bring judges to increase the adjudicatory capacity."
Those who represent immigrants in court see the influx as an effort to speed up the removal of undocumented immigrants.
"In El Paso, we had already seen an increase in prosecution taking place on the ground and these announcements are confirmation of something we suspected was already happening," said Lourdes Ortiz, a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee.
Ortiz is a caseworker who specializes in representing unaccompanied minors who either came to the United States alone or were separated from their families after being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Ortiz said there is a fear among immigration attorneys that courts will quickly move to deport migrants without a fair trial and reasonable opportunity to seek appropriate legal representation, which she says, is "the single biggest factor on whether you win your case or not."
The DOJ insists the actions are aimed at making the courts more efficient.
O'Malley said the government is also increasing the use of video teleconferencing in immigration courts and streamlining the hiring process for new judges.
The average time frame for the hiring of a judge has been reduced from 762 to 318 days, according to the DOJ, and the goal is to further reduce the hiring process to eight to 10 months.
The department is also considering implementing annual performance evaluations for immigration judges that include case completion quotas. The current expectation is for the judges to complete 700 cases a year in addition to appeals and other filings.
Lopez said quotas could pressure judges to rush cases to meet "unrealistic expectations."
Asked whether the quota had any precedent, Ortiz said: "The bigger question is why would you place any quotas, to begin with? Judges are supposed to be impartial and this goes to the heart of our concerns of undermining the due process. Having quotas provides an incentive to end up deporting people. In principle is an atrocious idea."