Thanks to a successful Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) action led by several organizations that regularly assist immigrant communities, new light has been shed on the federal government’s fast-track deportation of unaccompanied minors and refugee families from Central America.

The “rocket docket” process was instituted by the Obama administration in July 2014 in response to a surge of people fleeing extreme violence and deteriorating conditions in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The volume and compressed time schedule for handling the cases raised serious questions about whether due process rights were being trampled.

A group of plaintiffs—including the American Immigration Lawyers Association; Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto; the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings; and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area—enlisted Tom Burke to assist with a FOIA lawsuit after the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which runs immigration courts, failed to comply with the group’s request for relevant documents.

Within months after the lawsuit was filed, the government began releasing thousands of responsive documents. They revealed a lack of clear policies and procedures for the “rocket dockets,” which made it harder for people to navigate the system and avoid deportation.

Christine Lin, an attorney with the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, told Courthouse News Service: “When you put vulnerable children and women on expedited dockets, there needs to be transparency that is rapid. And they didn’t do that in a timely manner.

“Legal representatives would be able to provide better legal representation if we actually knew what the policies and the guidance was,” she said. “It’s a due process concern for sure if they don’t have these policies in place, and you’re learning as you go.”

The documents also contained data on the number of immigrants who were ordered removed in absentia. Lin said attorneys will be working to “revive those cases so they can have their day in court.”

The last of the requested documents was received in December 2016 and the fast-track directive was rescinded in a Jan. 31, 2017, memo by Chief Immigration Judge MaryBeth Keller. In a joint stipulation filed in March 2017, the U.S. government agreed to pay our clients $52,000 in litigation costs to settle the FOIA suit.

San Francisco partner Patrick Ferguson also assisted with this matter.