WASHINGTON — The nation's 58 immigration courts long have been the ragged stepchild of the judicial system — understaffed, technologically backward and clogged with an ever-growing backlog of cases, more than 680,000 at last count.
But a plan by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime immigration hawk, aimed at breaking the logjam and increasing deportations of immigrants in the country illegally has drawn surprising resistance from immigration judges across the country.
Many say Sessions' attempts to limit the discretion of the nation's 334 immigration judges, and set annual case quotas to speed up their rulings, will backfire and made delays even worse — as happened when previous administrations tried to reform the system.
"It's going to be a disaster and it's going to slow down the adjudications," warned Lawrence O. Burman, secretary of the National Association of Immigration Judges, a voluntary group that represents judges in collective bargaining.
Cases already move at a glacial pace. Nationwide, the average wait for a hearing date in immigration court is about two years, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization at Syracuse University.
But some jurisdictions are much slower. The immigration court in Arlington, Va., where Burman is a judge, has a four-year backlog, meaning hearings for new cases are being scheduled in 2022. Burman says the reality is far worse _ the docket says he has 1,000 cases scheduled to begin on the same day in 2020.
Trump complained bitterly about immigration courts during an event in West Virginia on Thursday, saying inaccurately that immigrants "are supposed to come back in two or three years for a court case, but no one comes back." A large majority of people show up for court hearings, however, statistics show.
Immigration judges conduct administrative proceedings to determine if immigrants charged with violating immigration law should be deported or allowed to remain in the country. The Homeland Security Department is responsible for guarding the border and enforcing immigration law, but the courts are under a separate office in the Justice Department.
Unlike criminal courts, defendants in immigration court who don't hire lawyers are not provided with public defenders. That includes the nearly 90,000 minors who crossed the border without their parents, mostly in recent surges from violence-torn parts of Central America, and are facing deportation proceedings.
For the Trump administration, the courts' slow pace is a serious obstacle to attempts to increase deportations. But fixing the courts won't be easy.
Everyone agrees more judges are needed. But putting them on the bench is itself a lengthy process. A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office said it took more than two years, on average, to hire an immigration judge due to the need for security clearances and multiple reviews.
After a concerted effort to streamline the process, hiring now takes about 10 months, according to Devin O'Malley, a Justice Department spokesman. He said the system now has 334 judges, up from 247 in 2015, but more than 100 positions are still vacant.
Sessions has called for ending use of so-called administrative closures, which allows immigration judges to close removals cases without making a final ruling, thus letting some of the immigrants avoid deportation.
In a speech in December, he criticized the Obama administration for allowing judges to close 200,000 cases in five years. "We are completing, not closing, immigration cases," Sessions said.
But judges argue that removing their ability to clear the books of stalled cases will only increase the backlog, not fix the problem.
Another problem: Poorly funded immigration courts still use paper files, slowing access to information, while other federal courts use digital filing systems.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Justice Department office that oversees the courts, started studying the problem in 2001. It has issued numerous reports and studies over the last 17 years, but accomplished little in the way of computerized record keeping.
Immigration courts also help adjudicate asylum claims. Under the law, immigrants may apply for asylum if they have suffered persecution, or have a credible fear of persecution, for such criteria as race, religion and political opinion. About 80 percent of applicants are allowed to stay while their asylum claims are reviewed.
Sessions has said that many asylum seekers are abusing the system by filing unsubstantiated claims so they can stay pending a hearing. The Trump administration wants Congress to change the law that requires children and families to be released from detention while they wait for their hearing date.
"Our hands are tied," said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition he not be identified. "Until changes are made, people are still going to exploit it."
But Sessions has begun changing the system. Last month, he decided that immigration judges could dismiss asylum claims without a hearing, and announced he would consider whether being a crime victim would be eligible to make a legitimate claim for asylum.
Immigration advocates fear Sessions ultimately will seek to prevent victims of gang violence or domestic abuse from winning asylum claims.
Sessions' latest plan, scheduled to begin on Oct. 1, will set performance goals for immigration judges, starting with completing 700 cases each year and resolving the vast majority quickly.
O'Malley, the department spokesman, said the annual quota is near historic averages and works out to about three cases a day. Administrators understand that "certain cases take a little bit longer," he said.
Seven women running on the Democratic ticket for everything from state legislator to U.S. senator filled a small stage inside the Weatherford Hotel on Friday.
The absence of the other sex was intentional in what an organizer said was a first-of-its-kind event hosted by the Coconino County Democratic Party to shine a spotlight on the party’s female candidates and what it’s like to be a woman in politics.
As the 2018 election begins to take shape, Arizona – a state that already has one of the largest proportions of women serving in the legislature – is gaining attention for what has become a groundswell of female candidates and women-driven political activism. It’s a trend the Democratic Party is eyeing as a potential game changer this November.
“New people are coming into the electorate and women are possibly the most prominent of that new coalition,” said Harriet Young, vice chair of the Coconino County Democratic Party.
In a state where the politics have long focused on guns, low taxes and a certain set of religious values, women have the potential to bring in new faces and a new narrative, Young said.
“It opens up choices,” she said. “It’s not between two white guys who go play golf together.”
Despite the focus of Friday’s event, a desire to tip the gender balance at the Capitol wasn’t the primary motivator for any of the candidates at the forum.
-- Kathy Hoffman, a school speech therapist running for superintendent of public instruction, said her tipping point was the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
--Kelly Fryer, a candidate for governor, said she first started thinking about running for office after speaking to a crowd of thousands during the first Women’s March in Tucson.
--And for January Contreras, who is running for attorney general, the decision to join the race was driven by what she sees as an erosion of checks and balances in the state government.
It almost went without saying that the election of Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office was another kick in the pants.
“November 8, 2016, hit like a ton of bricks,” said Felicia French, who is running to represent Legislative District 6, which includes Flagstaff, in the state House of Representatives.
In a similar vein, gender wasn’t among the qualifications the women mentioned as they talked about why they’re right for the job. Instead, they named things like military experience, success turning around a regional nonprofit and a career spent in public service. As Contreras said, her gender doesn’t make her more qualified for the job, but to some voters it’s a point that really matters.
“I don't think being a woman means you win your election. What I do see, though, is nearly on a daily basis someone says ‘I like what you have to say… and I want to see a woman in this office,'” Contreras said.
In many ways a female candidate represents change in a political system dominated by men, she said.
“People know they want something different than now and that means new faces and new voices and for some people that means a mom, a woman, someone who has shared their experience who cares about the future of our kids in a maternal way. I definitely get that comment a lot,” Contreras said.
Fryer said that being a woman, a mother and a grandmother means she focuses on different issues than her male counterparts. Immigration and poverty, both of which have huge impacts on women and families, are among her major focuses but weren’t getting any attention by the two better-known candidates in the race, Steve Farley and David Garcia, she said.
“I don't expect anyone to vote for me just because I’m a woman or just because I’m gay but because I’m right on the issues,” she said.
Several of the candidates said they see potential for women to bring a more collaborative approach to governing that will benefit a time in politics that has become particularly divisive. They’re also the answer to combatting sexual harassment that persists in the state legislature, said Katie Hobbs, who is running for secretary of state after serving in the Arizona state senate since 2012. Women feel more comfortable speaking up if they are surrounded by more female colleagues, she said.
In the course of their campaigning, Contreras and Fryer said they have tapped into the growing network of grassroots groups that has sprouted across the state.
“They’re places like Kingman and Yuma and Globe and Clifton, and most are being led by women and they are very excited about having a woman in this race,” Fryer said.
Even with surging female support, however, at least a couple of candidates on Friday said their path into politics hasn’t been a breeze and they still battle gender assumptions on the campaign trail.
One of the questions she gets asked most often is what makes her think she’s qualified to be governor, and that question most often comes from men, Fryer said.
“It’s hard not to hear a little twinge of sexism in that question,” she said.
Hoffman said that since she began campaigning last spring, she has made it a pillar of her campaign to support and inspire other female candidates. She said she has reached out to several who entered the race this year, given them her personal cellphone number and told them she’s there if they need her.
Fryer said it took many people asking her to run before she finally made the decision to do so. Though her views are opposite the president’s on almost every issue, as a lesbian and a female who has never held political office before, seeing a man like Trump win the presidency also helped convince her to join the governor’s race, she said.
“All of the conventional wisdom about who should run and how to get elected, that playbook has been smashed to smithereens,” she said. “That created an opening for me to run for office that, to be honest, two years ago I would never have thought possible.”
Flagstaff’s Senestech has been hit with its second major lawsuit since the homegrown bioscience company went public in December 2016.
At the same time, the company’s year-end report released last month shows operating expenses continue to dwarf sales revenues while its stock prices have hovered below $1 per share during the past four months.
But company officials continue to strike an optimistic tone, calling last year a “buildout year” and sticking with projections that the 14-year-old company will break even by the end of 2018.
The first publicly traded company to be based in northern Arizona, Senestech has developed a formula that controls rat populations by decreasing fertility in the animals.
It was most recently named a defendant in a lawsuit filed by one of its investors, New Enterprises. In its February complaint, New Enterprises claims that Senestech withheld information and fraudulently induced it to invest a total of $1 million in the Flagstaff company, then prevented it from selling its shares and benefiting from its investment.
Attorneys for the investment trust wrote that in early 2015, Senestech was on the verge of financial collapse and without the New Enterprises loan the company wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.
Senestech officials said they couldn’t comment on the details of the case, but denied New Enterprises’ claims.
“There is not even a single basis for any of the allegations, we reject them utterly and will be defending ourselves very forcibly,” Tom Chesterman, the company’s chief financial officer said in an interview last week.
About a year before the New Enterprises complaint Senestech settled another lawsuit, this one filed by Neogen, a corporation focused on food and animal safety that had a license agreement to manufacture and market Senestech’s ContraPest rat contraceptive. In that lawsuit, Neogen claimed Senestech withheld information required under the license agreement, misrepresented the nature of the ContraPest technology and attempted to interfere with Neogen’s other lines of business.
“Almost from the inception of the License Agreement, SenesTech has engaged in a series of material breaches that appear designed to coerce Neogen to abandon its rights under the contract,” attorneys for Neogen wrote in the complaint.
Senestech officials played down the lawsuit. CEO Loretta Mayer brushed the allegations aside, saying company leaders did what they had to do to satisfy Neogen’s shareholders.
Being in Noegen’s situation, “you have to say ‘they don’t know what they’re talking about’ and on my side we have to say we do know and here’s the evidence,” Mayer said. Neogen simply misunderstood that the formula doesn’t result in permanent sterilization, Mayer said.
“The lawsuit gave us an opportunity to stop bickering and move it forward,” she said.
The settlement also required Senestech to pay Neogen $1 million to account for licensing fees it had already paid and other investments it had made to prepare for manufacturing and marketing of ContraPest, Mayer said.
Requests for comment from Neogen were not returned.
Mayer said it's because of the Neogen lawsuit that Senestech has reshaped its current structure. When the two companies split ways, Senestech decided to take marketing and manufacturing in house and since then has increased hiring to build up a sales and marketing team and has brought on two manufacturing lines. The total staff count now numbers 43 employees, Chesterman said.
The company has shifted from an initial concentration on research and development to one on sales and commercialization, Mayer said. And becoming publicly traded has required Senestech to evolve even further from its roots, she said.
“We started this as R&D and now we have more attorneys, accountants, SEC auditors than scientists,” she said.
Going public also brings a higher probability of lawsuits because the company has a larger pool of investors, Chesterman said. The recent lawsuits didn’t come as a surprise, Mayer said.
As it moves into 2018, Senestech’s expenses are still far outpacing revenues. Last year, total revenue was $52,000 and expenses were $12.3 million.
In its annual report for 2017, Senestech wrote that it expects to incur significant expenses and generate operating losses for at least the next 12 months. While acknowledging losses will continue, Mayer said “we are definitely still on the road to the quote-unquote break even by the end of 2018.”
In an effort to concentrate its focus on boosting sales of the ContraPest formula, the company has sidelined work to make a similar contraceptive product for dogs as well as its plans to expand ContraPest distribution to places like Europe, Mayer said.
“Our laser focus is on sales, sales, sales here in the U.S.” she said.