Months before President Donald Trump announced plans for massive immigration raids, members of his administration were busy cooking up plans to deport asylum-seeking families released into the United States.
Their solution? Create expedited dockets for newly arrived families in ten immigration courts in cities including Miami, Houston, San Francisco, and Chicago. These "rocket dockets" fast-track the cases of newly arrived immigrant families, leading to speedy deportation orders for those who don't turn up in court.
Families already ordered to be removed were among the main targets of last weekend's planned immigration raids. (Trump ultimately put a hold on the deportation surge as a detente with Democrats.) And while it's clear Trump was incredibly sloppy in rolling out the ICE raids, his administration's new rocket dockets have been anything but since their introduction last November.
Miami's immigration court has been among the most brutally efficient of the courts with such dockets, ordering removals in absentia in nearly 90 percent of some 2,300 completed cases in the past nine months, according to federal data. Miami, which had the second highest number of family-unit docket cases behind Houston, granted legal relief for just three cases during that time. Nationwide, 10,877 of 13,313 families were ordered removed without them present in court.
Miami immigration attorney Joe Lackey, who handles cases of asylum-seeking families, says the rocket docket figures don't surprise him.
"Churn them and burn them — that's the mantra here," Lackey says. "Give lip service to due process, and then order them deported as fast as possible."
There are many reasons why a family with a fast-tracked case might miss its hearing. It could be that the family never received a notice to appear in the first place. Immigration law only requires that the notice be sent to the address the court has on file — there's no provision to ensure it actually arrives. Notices lost in the mail or sent to the wrong address because of a clerical error can still lead to orders of deportation in absentia.
"We've heard of immigrants receiving notice the day before their hearing or even after the fact," says Adonia Simpson, director of the Family Defense Program at Americans for Immigrant Justice. "The Miami immigration court serves a large area as far as Key West, Port St. Lucie, Lee County, and Collier County. Even just getting to a fast-tracked trial can be difficult for immigrants who aren't authorized to drive and need to find a ride on short notice."
Under the Trump administration, ICE has refused to stop courthouse arrests of immigrants who show up for their hearings, causing fear among immigrants who worry they won't get a chance to see a judge.
Immigrants can also be unsure about which steps to take after receiving a notice. Notifications to appear in court are required to be written in a language understood by the immigrant, but this is often not the case, according to Lackey.
"Plenty of immigrants get their notices in the wrong language, can't read it, and miss their hearing," Lackey says. "I've had Romanian gypsies be served their notice in Spanish."
Unlike in the criminal justice system, immigrants are not afforded the right to an attorney and often lack legal assistance with their cases. Nearly 100 percent of nondetained families nationwide who managed to get a lawyer made it to all of their court hearings, according to a new analysis of attendance rates by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. In Miami, about 97 percent of families with legal representation showed up to all of their hearings.
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That same report found more than 10,000 cases were entered into court records without necessary information, such as the date on the notice to appear and particular information about the family. The same information is used to issue hearing notifications.
The Trump administration isn't alone in its use of expedited dockets — the Obama administration created its own rocket dockets for migrant women and children crossing the border in 2014. But unlike the Obama administration, which at least claimed to prioritize immigrants with criminal histories, Trump has declared open season on anyone without legal status, including families with orders for removal.
According to reporting in The New Yorker , earlier this year Homeland Security officials created a deportation list of some 2,500 immigrant family members who had their cases fast-tracked. The administration had plans to detain as many as 10,000 people spit out by the new rocket dockets.
Far from being an unscripted act of cruelty by Trump, the targeting of immigrant families has been a long time coming. Trump's impulsive Twitter announcement created logistical problems for DHS, not moral ones. And if immigration courts like Miami's continue breezing through rockets dockets as they have, ICE agents will have no shortage of targets in the future.