Asylum seekers who had immigration court cases scheduled for Christmas Eve in San Diego will have to wait a little longer to face a judge after the latest scheduling problem in the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program.
San Diego Immigration Court was closed on Tuesday after President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week giving many government employees the day off. Prior to that order, some judges at the local court had planned to hear cases on Dec. 24.
Judges had been scheduling cases for Christmas Eve in part because of two Trump administration policies that place pressure on judges to increase the volume of cases they handle through the year, according to the union that represents them.
Before Trump’s executive order, immigration judges were scheduled to be off on Christmas Day but not the day before. The Department of Justice, which employs immigration judges through an agency called the Executive Office for Immigration Review, has issued memos establishing annual quotas for judges’ productivity as well as a “no dark courtrooms” policy.
In previous years, judges might have worked on Christmas Eve, but would not have had the same pressure to fill their calendars with hearings, said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, in mid-December before the schedule change.
One of the cases scheduled for Christmas Eve in San Diego was an asylum seeker who asked that his case be moved along more quickly.
One afternoon about two weeks ago, a man with glasses sat in front of Immigration Judge Scott Simpson in San Diego Immigration Court. He told Simpson that he didn’t want to wait any longer to look for an attorney. He wanted to represent himself.
“I’ve already had a lot of time here,” the man said in Spanish, referring to Tijuana. “The situation has been very difficult.”
He asked for his final court hearing, when he will present evidence for his asylum case, to be scheduled as soon as possible.
Simpson slowed him down, emphasizing that it would also be important to take time to review documents that the government’s attorney had just submitted as evidence in the case. Those documents were in English.
“What’s the fastest I could come back?” the man asked.
Dec. 24, the judge said. The man agreed.
The San Diego Union-Tribune called the court’s hotline on Tuesday to check the man’s next hearing date. His case will now be heard in February.
Had he not asked the judge to schedule his case more quickly, he would most likely have had his next hearing almost a month earlier.
With ongoing reports of asylum seekers being attacked, kidnapped or even killed while they wait in Mexico for their court dates, advocates were quick to criticize the delay caused by the court closure.
“On this Christmas Eve, the Trump administration has found another way to reject refugees at our border where we had once offered hope and respite through our legal system,” said Ian Philabaum with Innovation Law Lab, an organization that has sued over the Remain in Mexico program. “The sudden closure of the courts results in another violation of the due process rights of asylum seekers, and prolongs an already dangerous situation that makes children and adults vulnerable to homelessness, deteriorating health and physical violence.”
Officials with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
The Trump administration has called the program a “success,” saying that it has deterred people from seeking asylum at the southwest border.
Asylum seekers waiting in Tijuana under the Remain in Mexico program — known officially as Migrant Protection Protocols — who had hearings slated for Tuesday likely did not find out about the schedule change until they arrived at the port of entry to go to court.
Under the implementation of MPP, when an asylum seeker is sent back to Mexico, border officials fill out an immigration court hearing notice.
In cases on the U.S. side of the border, that notice includes the asylum seeker’s address officially on record with the court. Asylum seekers are required to update the court any time they move so that the court can communicate about scheduling changes or other issues.
However, for MPP returnees sent back across the California border, officials generally write “Domicilio conocido” instead of a street address.
Domicilio conocido is not a place in Tijuana. It is a general delivery address.
Most migrants who are processed for MPP do not know where they will live in Mexico at the time they are returned. Once they find a place to live while they wait for their cases to be heard, their housing is rarely reliable. They often stay temporarily in shelters or hotels or bounce between rented rooms.
Since the beginning of Remain in Mexico, immigration judges in San Diego have criticized the federal government’s use of a generic address for MPP cases.
The day before Thanksgiving, Immigration Judge Philip Law told an Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney that attempting to contact people via the domicilio conocido address would be a “futile exercise.”
“The address is non-deliverable,” he said, noting that from the government’s records, it appeared that thousands of people were living at that same, mysterious address in Tijuana.
A number of judges, including Law, have refused to order many MPP returnees deported if they don’t show up for their immigration hearings. They believe that the generic addresses mean that the asylum seekers weren’t adequately notified of their hearing dates, and judges have often opted to terminate, or close, the cases instead.
Through November 2019, judges terminated 8,099 MPP cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University. More than 7,300 of those cases were closed in San Diego.