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Justice system seeks judges for new immigration court to sit at Baton Rouge, perhaps by this fall

2 months 2 weeks 5 days ago Friday, April 05 2024 Apr 5, 2024 April 05, 2024 9:04 AM April 05, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's capital city is in line for a new court to help clear a backlog of immigration cases clogging the judicial system.

One of the nation's top immigration judges issued a call last month via email for judges willing to transfer to new courts in Baton Rouge and Indianapolis, according to correspondence received through an open records request to the federal Executive Office of Immigration Review. Both judgeships could be in place by the end of the year.

"We anticipate opening new courts in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in fall 2024," wrote Regional Deputy Chief Immigration Judge Daniel H. Weiss in an email. The timetable is subject to change.

Immigration courts grew out of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and have a separate role in the U.S. Department of Justice from traditional civil, criminal and bankruptcy courts.

Nationally, there is a backlog of about 3 million cases; in Louisiana, there are about 56,000 cases pending before judges in New Orleans, Oakdale and Jena. Some immigration attorneys believe Louisiana has even more in the pipeline.

"I would think it would be higher than that," said Carey Holliday, a former immigration judge and practicing immigration attorney, on why the backlog is so high. He blames Louisiana's relative proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. "The border's wide open."

Weiss' email was sent to about 700 current immigration judges asking whether they would relocate to Baton Rouge from their current locations at their own expense. It's unknown how many judges replied. 

Holliday said the average immigration judge has a docket of 10,000 cases, but judges can only hear one case at a time, and cases can take anywhere from an hour to a few days. The state's current backlog is about 630 days behind, or about 21 months.

Of the three current Louisiana immigration courthouses, Louisiana, the New Orleans courthouse handles those who are not detained, while the Jena and Oakdale locations handle those being held behind bars. Holliday said he believes the Baton Rouge court would be non-detained.

The New Orleans courthouse's backlog is almost 54,000 cases deep.

"Baton Rouge is full of undocumented people just like everywhere else these days," Holliday said. "And it's a legitimate, it's a good spot geographically. It takes some of the load off of New Orleans."

Holliday and other immigration attorneys are forced to travel to the state's three courthouse locations for trials, but not only do attorneys have to travel, their clients have to as well.

"We charge for that," Holliday said.

Ken Mayeaux, an immigration attorney and the founder of Mayeaux & Associates, said his clients — some of whom reside in Alabama, Mississippi and other regions of Louisiana — are forced to spend hundreds of dollars in travel. He said that's a steep price to pay when many of his clients are already in a hard place financially.

Where the Baton Rouge immigration court will be housed remains to be seen, but it's welcomed by Mayeaux and immigration attorneys nonetheless.

"It's such a challenge to just navigate anywhere," Mayeaux said. "Many of our clients have to get a ride, and they pay hundreds of dollars for people to take them down to New Orleans, and so to do anything that shortens that, where it makes it easier for them to get to court, is a welcomed change for them and for us, too."

The New Orleans Immigration Court doesn't just service cases confined to the state of Louisiana. Like Mayeaux's representation of clients, the court also hears cases from Alabama and Mississippi.

"Our clients have to travel five to six hours just to get down to New Orleans, and so cutting an hour and a half off of that is a big deal," Mayeaux said.

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