Under pressure to take immediate, dramatic steps to deal with the tens of thousands of Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, the Department of Justice said Wednesday that, among other measures, it plans to overhaul the way immigration courts schedule hearings.
The idea is to put unaccompanied minors at the front of the line of those who come before a judge.
The Obama administration has been under pressure – from liberals and conservatives alike – to stem the growing tide of children crossing into the Rio Grande Valley alone and then being held in crowded conditions as they wait to be processed at federal facilities.
A statement by Juan P. Osuna, the director of the Justice Department office that oversees the courts, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), said, “This refocusing of resources will allow EOIR to prioritize the adjudication of the cases of those individuals involved in the evolving situation at the southwest border.” Adding, “Although our case management priorities are shifting, our immigration judges will continue to evaluate and rule upon cases consistent with all substantive and procedural rights and safeguards applicable to immigration proceedings.”
The announcement comes a day after the administration said it was requesting $3.7 billion from Congress to address the influx.
The unaccompanied children are migrating mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – many of them fleeing cartel violence. Along the way, many have also heard rumors, sometimes from smugglers, that once they arrive in the U.S. they will be allowed to remain.
More than 50,000 kids have arrived already since fall, a number that's expected to rise to 90,000 by the end of this fiscal year.
Thousands of families also are coming.
The unexpected spike is overwhelming immigration courts and holding facilities across the Southwest and turning into a major political crisis for the Obama administration.
Some $45 million of the $3.7 billion the administration is requesting would go toward additional immigration judges and their staffs. The White House said the funding would also go toward improving legal resources for those going through deportation proceedings.
The Justice Department announcement said it would target the criminal networks exploiting – or even encouraging, some say – the exodus. That part of the new directive would include joint efforts with the Mexican government and other federal U.S. agencies in going after those ferrying people across the border.
“The department will also redouble its efforts to work with Mexican authorities to identify and apprehend smugglers who are aiding unaccompanied children in crossing the U.S. border,” the statement said. “Later this week, the Deputy Attorney General will also be meeting with the five U.S. Attorneys who represent the southwest border districts to strategize on ways to disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations on the border that are facilitating the transportation of unaccompanied minors and others.”
Groups that advocate for more lenient immigration policies expressed misgivings about speeding up deportation proceedings, saying that children, in particular, are in danger of being sent back to abusive and violent situations in their home countries.
Several such groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a nationwide class-action suit on Wednesday on behalf of the children that says the federal government has failed to provide them with legal representation and has put them of risk of danger.
“There are kids in deportation proceedings without attorneys,” said Beth Werlin, deputy legal director at the American Immigration Council, which has joined the ACLU in the lawsuit.
“We’re in favor of putting more resources in the courts,” she told Fox News Latino. “But there have to be fair hearings. They take time – to request evidence, to consult with your attorney. It takes time to train judges, particularly in children’s cases, if they haven’t had experience working with children.”
Groups that favor stricter immigration enforcement say the Obama administration must take a more wholesale approach to changing the flawed system that they say has encouraged much of the influx.
“President Obama’s emergency funding request is fatally flawed because it is not accompanied by critical policy changes that address the core of the immigration crisis our nation is now facing,” a statement by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said.
“Without those critical policy changes, the president’s request is merely a temporary Band-Aid to ease the chaos," the group added. "It is not a serious proposal to end the crisis.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.