REFUGEES AND DUE PROCESS MAKE AMERICA REALLY GREAT
Remarks by Paul Wickham Schmidt,
Retired United States Immigration Judge
The Refugee Ball
Sixth & I Synagogue 600 I Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20001
Tuesday, January 17, 2017 from 5:00 to 9:00 PM
Good evening, everyone. I’m honored to be here. Lets have a big round of applause for Jason Dzubow and his staff for coming up with the idea and putting this together!
As you can probably tell, it was a battle getting into my “Jones Day Spring Prom Era Tux” tonight. As I walked out the door, my wife Cathy said: “Are you actually going to be able to breathe, let alone speak, in that thing?”
As a “regular” at the Arlington Immigration Court, Jason obviously is quite familiar with my habits. I noted that on the advance program he took the extreme precaution of not only putting me in a “10-minute slot” near the end of the program, but also adding in parentheses in big bold letters “10 minutes max.” So, I get the picture, Jason. I’m going to briefly address two things that make America great: refugees and due process.
I’m pleased to back in the old ‘hood, although it’s hard to recognize. For about twelve years in the 1970s and 1980s I worked in the General Counsel’s Office of the “Legacy INS” in the famous Chester Arthur Building – the only monument in Washington to our great 21st President –— at 425 Eye St., NW, just down the street. And, one of my most memorable accomplishments during that time was being part of the “team” that helped the Refugee Act of 1980 become law. It was a chance to make a positive difference in America’s future, indeed in the world’s future, while coming into contact with some of the finest intellects in the business: David Martin, Alex Aleinikoff, Doris Meissner, the late Jerry Tinker, and the late Jack Perkins come immediately to mind. So, I have what you might call a “vested interest” in U.S. refugee and asylum system.
I worked with refugees and their cases almost every workday for more than 21 years during my tenure as a trial and appellate judge with the United States Immigration Courts. And, I’ll admit that on many of my “off days” the challenges, stories, human drama, triumph, and trauma of refugees and refugee law bounced around in my head, much to the dismay of my wonderful wife, Cathy.
Although I have the greatest respect and admiration for the inspiring life stories of refugees and their contributions to the United States, I have never, for even one second, wanted to be a refugee. Like all of the speakers tonight, I see refugees as a huge asset to our country. It says something about us as a nation that so many great people from all over the world want to make this their home and to contribute their talents, some of which were on display here tonight, to the greatness of America. So, to all of you out there who came as refugees or asylees, thank you for coming, for your service, and for your dedication to making our great country even greater.
The other topic I want to address briefly, that is near and dear to me personally, is the overriding importance of due process in our refugee and asylum system. Each of you who came as a refugee or asylee is here because an adjudicator at some level of our system carefully and fairly gave you a chance to state your claim, listened to and reviewed the support you provided for your claim, and made a favorable decision in your case.
For some of you, that decision was made by a DHS Refugee Officer or an Asylum Officer. Others of you had to rely on different levels of our system – a U.S. Immigration Judge, the Board of Immigration Appeals, or in some cases, a U.S. Court of Appeals to have your status granted. In all of these instances you received something very precious under our Constitution: due process of law.
Unfortunately, there currently is a “due process crisis” in our overloaded Immigration Court System. With over one-half million pending cases and waiting times of many years in some courts for final hearings to be held, our Immigration Court System is under intense pressure.
Sometimes, that results in approaches that generally have a favorable impact for individuals seeking protection. For example, grants of Temporary Protected Status and work authorization take many cases off the Immigration Court docket and legislation such as NACARA for Central Americans or HIRIFA for Haitians permanently resolves many cases favorably at the DHS without requiring a full-blown asylum hearing before an U.S. Immigration Judge.
But, when backlogs build up and enforcement pressures mount on our Government, less benign approaches and suggestions sometimes come to the fore. Adjudicators can be pressured to do counterproductive things like decide more cases in less time, limit evidence to shorten hearings, and make “blanket denials” based on supposed improvements in country conditions.
Other times, placing more individuals in civil immigration detention is looked at as a way of both expediting case processing and actively discouraging individuals from coming to the United States and making claims for refuge under our laws in the first place. Or, moving cases though the system so quickly that applicants can’t find pro bono lawyers to represent them is sometimes incorrectly viewed as an acceptable method for shortening adjudication times, thereby reducing backlogs.
Another method far too often used for discouraging asylum claims and inhibiting due process is placing asylum applicants in DHS Detention Centers, often privately operated, with “imbedded” Immigration Courts in obscure out of the way locations like Dilley, Texas and Lumpkin, Georgia where access to pro bono attorneys, family members, and other sources of support is severely limited or nonexistent.
When these things happen, due process suffers. So, while I’m always hoping for the best, it is critical for all of us in this room to zealously protect the due process rights of all migrants and insist on full due process being maintained, and, ideally, even enhanced. This includes both supporting individuals in the system by helping them obtain effective legal representation and, where appropriate, vigorously asserting the due process rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants in the Article III Federal Courts.
Only by insisting on due process for those already in the system will we be able to insure a fair and effective system for future refugees. And, welcoming and fairly treating future refugees is a key to making and keeping America great.
So, that’s my message: due process can’t be taken for granted! It must be nurtured, protected, expanded, and vigorously and proudly asserted! Thanks for listening, good luck, do great things, and due process forever!