The Biden administration on Friday unveiled an initiative to fast-track the immigration court proceedings of migrant families with children who recently crossed the southern border without permission from the U.S. government.

Under the new program, immigration judges in 10 cities are expected in general to issue decisions within 300 days of a family’s first master calendar court hearing, barring some extensions to ensure families have access to due process and legal counsel, according to Justice Department guidance.

A joint effort between the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, the so-called “dedicated docket” is similar to programs the Obama and Trump administrations enacted to expedite the court cases of migrant families and unaccompanied children.  

Migrant families who cross the southern border between ports of entry after Friday and are then released from U.S. border custody under the alternatives to detention program will be eligible for the fast-tracked court docket, DHS said in its announcement.

The 10 cities selected for the new program are Denver, Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle

“Families arriving at the border who are placed in immigration proceedings should have their cases decided in an orderly, efficient, and fair manner,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement, adding that they “should not languish in a multi-year backlog.” 

During the pandemic, the Biden administration has continued a Trump-era public health directive known as Title 42 to expel migrant adults and families without allowing them to seek asylum, although most families who have entered U.S. border custody in the past three months have been allowed to stay, pending the resolution of their cases, according to government figures. 

Both previous “rocket docket” initiatives under former Presidents Obama and Trump elicited criticism from advocates for asylum-seekers, who argued the fast-track proceedings trampled on the due process of families and children. Many families were unable to secure legal representation, which is often key to winning forms of relief from deportation like asylum.

About 81% of the families placed in the Obama-era expedited docket who did not have lawyers were ordered deported because they didn’t attend their court hearings, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. Only 8% of those who secured legal representation were ordered deported because of missed hearing appointments.

Families represented by attorneys were also ten times as likely to win asylum or other protections from deportation, the analysis found.

The Biden administration said in its announcement that the new program balances faster adjudications and due process protections for migrant families. DHS said it will offer families information about the U.S. immigration system and connect them with pro bono legal service providers. The ten cities were selected because of their “established” networks of lawyers, the department added.

A DHS official said court proceedings will be sped up “without sacrificing fairness,” noting the department will strive to “maximize legal representation.” While judges will be expected to resolve the majority of cases within 300 days of the first hearings, they “will not be subject to strict quotas and timelines,” the official added.

The ballooning U.S. immigration court backlog has bedeviled Republican and Democratic administrations. As of last month, there were more than 1.3 million pending cases before U.S. immigration judges, according to government data compiled by researchers at Syracuse University.

The Trump administration limited immigration judges’ ability to grant asylum, as well as their discretion to close cases and suspend deportation proceedings for certain immigrants.

Unlike the Obama and Trump administrations, the Biden administration has so far declined to oversee the long-term detention of migrant families, converting family detention facilities into rapid processing hubs.

Advocates, however, have criticized the Biden administration’s decision to continue summarily expelling some families with children to Mexico under the Title 42 process.

Eleanor Acer, senior director of Human Rights First’s refugee protection program, said she was heartened that Friday’s court docket announcement included commitments to ensuring families have due process and access to lawyers. But she said only time will tell whether those commitments are fulfilled.

Acer also expressed concern about the Biden administration retaining some of the numerous Trump-era restrictions on asylum, including rules that effectively bar victims of gang and domestic violence from U.S. refuge.

“One of our big concerns is that this program is being implemented while Trump administration policies that block refugees from asylum are still in place,” Acer told CBS News. “The result will be that people who are entitled to asylum will simply be denied asylum and deported back to their countries of persecution through this docket.”

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