AMERICA’S REAL IMMIGRATION CRISIS: THE ATTACK ON DUE PROCESS IN THE UNITED STATES IMMIGRATON COURTS

AMERICA’S REAL IMMIGRATION CRISIS: THE ATTACK ON DUE PROCESS IN THE UNITED STATES IMMIGRATON COURTS

 

Keynote Address by

 

Paul Wickham Schmidt

 

United States Immigration Judge (Retired)

 

LIGHT OF LIBERTY AWARDS

 

Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center

 

Heritage Hills Golf Resort

 

York, PA

 

JUNE 7, 2016

 

I. INTRODUCTION

Good evening. Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at this wonderful event. I’m honored to be here. The PIRC is a terrific organization that provides critical legal services to the most vulnerable during one of the most difficult periods in our recent history.

 

The York area has a well-established tradition of humanitarian generosity and support for the most needy that was highlighted during the Golden Venture episode and described in the book Snakehead. I learned today that PIRC was formed to respond to the needs of the Golden Venture detainees. The U.S. Immigration Court in York has one of the highest representation rates for detained individuals in the nation, over 50%.

 

By contrast, the Arlington Immigration Court, where I used to sit, and the Baltimore Immigration Court had detained representation rates of around 20% and 10% respectively. And, it’s even worse in other parts of the country.

 

Back in February, I had the pleasure of working with your amazing Executive Director, Mary Studzinski, at a group session directed at improving training for non-attorney representatives authorized to practice before the U.S. Immigration Courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals. We bonded instantly. That’s “human bonding” rather than “immigration bonding,” of course. Mary’s kinetic energy, practical knowledge, tremendous dedication, and incisive contributions to the group were simply stunning. I must admit, I thought she was the Managing Attorney of the organization until she explained her role to me. You are so fortunate to have of someone who cares so deeply about your mission leading you. Mary is just what America needs right now.

 

Speaking of what America needs, I of course want to be the first to congratulate the five extraordinary individuals and two groups we are honoring tonight with well-deserved “Light of Liberty” Awards. Your energy, knowledge, and willingness to give of yourselves to others is making a much needed positive difference in this community and in our world. Each of you is indeed changing the course of history for the better. And, I’m pleased to announce that I have bestowed on each of tonight’s award recipients the rank of “General” in the “New Due Process Army. “

 

And, of course, thanks again to our great sponsors, mentioned by Mary, for supporting PIRCV and tonight’s awards.

 

II. THE DUE PROCESS CRISIS IN IMMIGRATON COURT

 

As most of you in this room probably recognize, there is no “immigration crisis” in America today. What we have is a series of potentially solvable problems involving immigration that have been allowed to grow and fester by politicians and political officials over many years.

 

But, there is a real crisis involving immigration: the attack on due process in our U.S. Immigration Courts that have brought them to the brink of collapse. I’m going to tell you seven things impeding the delivery of due process in Immigration Court that should be of grave concern to you and to all other Americans who care about our justice system and our value of fundamental fairness.

 

First, political officials in the last three Administrations have hijacked the noble mission of the U.S. Immigration Courts. That vision, which I helped develop in the late 1990s, is to “be the world’s best administrative tribunals guaranteeing fairness and due process for all.”

 

Instead, the Department of Justice’s ever-changing priorities, aimless docket reshuffling, and morbid fascination with increased immigration detention as a means of deterrence have turned the Immigration Court system back into a tool of DHS enforcement. Obviously, it is past time for an independent U.S. Immigration Court to be established outside the Executive Branch.

 

Second, there simply are not enough pro bono and low bono attorneys and authorized representatives available to assist all the individuals who need representation in Immigration Court. As I mentioned, this problem is particularly acute in detention courts. We know that representation makes a huge difference. Represented individuals succeed at rates four to five times greater than unrepresented individuals.

 

There have been a number of studies documenting the substandard conditions in immigration detention, particularly those run by private contractors, which in some cases prove deadly or debilitating. Some of these studies have recommended that immigration detention be sharply reduced and that so-called “family detention” be discontinued immediately.

 

A rational response might have been to develop creative alternatives to detention, and to work closely with and support efforts to insure access to legal representation for all individuals in Removal Proceedings. Instead, the response of the current Administration has been to “double down” on detention, by promising to detain all undocumented arrivals and to create a new “American Gulag” of detention centers, most privately run, along our southern border, where access to attorneys and self-help resources is limited to non-existent.

 

Third, the Immigration Courts have an overwhelming caseload. Largely as a result of “aimless docket reshuffling” by Administrations of both parties, the courts’ backlog has now reached an astounding 600,000 cases, with no end in sight. Since 2009, the number of cases pending before the Immigration Courts has tripled, while court resources have languished.

 

The Administration’s detention priorities and essentially random DHS enforcement program are like running express trains at full throttle into an existing train wreck without any discernable plan for clearing the track!” You can read about it in my article in the latest edition of The Federal Lawyer.

 

Fourth, the immigration system relies far too much on detention. The theory is that detention, particularly under poor conditions with no access to lawyers, family, or friends, will “grind down individuals” so that they abandon their claims and take final orders or depart voluntarily. As they return to their countries and relate their unhappy experiences with the U.S. justice system, that supposedly will “deter” other individuals from coming.

 

Although there has been a downturn in border apprehensions since the Administration took office, there is little empirical evidence that such deterrence strategies will be effective in stopping undocumented migration in the long run. In any event, use of detention, as a primary deterrent for non-criminals who are asserting their statutory right to a hearing and their constitutional right to due process is highly inappropriate. Immigration detention is also expensive, and questions have been raised about the procedures used for awarding some of the contracts.

 

Fifth, we need an appellate court, the Board of Immigration Appeals, that functions like a real court not a high-volume service center. Over the past decade and one-half, the Board has taken an overly restrictive view of asylum law that fails to fulfill the generous requirements of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Cardoza-Fonseca and the Board’s own precedent in Matter of Mogharrabi. The Board has also failed to take a strong stand for respondents’ due process rights in Immigration Court.

 

Largely as a result of the Board’s failure to assert positive leadership, there is a tremendous discrepancy in asylum grant rates – so-called refugee roulette.” Overall grant rates have inexplicably been falling. Some courts such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and some other major non-detained courts have ludicrously low asylum grant rates, thereby suggesting a system skewed, perhaps intentionally, against asylum seekers. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Board has become totally “government-dominated” with no member appointed from the private sector this century.

 

Sixth, the DOJ selection process for Immigration Judges and BIA Members has become both incredibly ponderous and totally one-sided. According to a recent GAO study, it takes on the average nearly two years to fill an Immigration Judge position. No wonder there are scores of vacancies and an unmanageable backlog!

 

And, it’s not that the results of this glacial process produce a representative immigration judiciary. During the Obama Administration, approximately 88% of the Immigration Judge appointments came directly from government backgrounds. In other words, private sector expertise has been almost totally excluded from the 21st Century immigration judiciary.

 

Seventh, and finally, the Immigration Courts need e-filing NOW! Without it, the courts are condemned to “files in the aisles,” misplaced filings, lost exhibits, and exorbitant courier charges. Also, because of the absence of e-filing, the public receives a level of service disturbingly below that of any other major court system. That gives the Immigration Courts an “amateur night” aura totally inconsistent with the dignity of the process, the critical importance of the mission, and the expertise, hard work, and dedication of the judges and court staff who make up our court.

 

III. ACTION PLAN

 

Keep these thoughts in mind. Sadly, based on actions to date, I have little hope that Attorney General Sessions will support due process reforms or an independent U.S. Immigration Court, although it would be in his best interests as well as those of our country if he did. However, eventually our opportunity will come. When it does, those of us who believe in the primary importance of constitutional due process must be ready with concrete reforms.

 

So, do we abandon all hope? No, of course not!   Because there are hundreds of newer lawyers out there who are former Arlington JLCs, interns, my former students, and those who have practiced before the Arlington Immigration Court.

           

They form what I call the “New Due Process Army!” And, while my time on the battlefield is winding down, they are just beginning the fight! They will keep at it for years, decades, or generations — whatever it takes to force the U.S. immigration judicial system to live up to its promise of “guaranteeing fairness and due process for all!”

           

What can you do to get involved now? The overriding due process need is for competent representation of individuals claiming asylum and/or facing removal from the United States. Currently, there are not nearly enough pro bono lawyers to insure that everyone in Immigration Court gets represented.

          

And the situation is getting worse. With the Administration’s expansion of so-called “expedited removal,” lawyers are needed at earlier points in the process to insure that those with defenses or plausible claims for relief even get into the Immigration Court process, rather than being summarily removed with little, if any, recourse.

 

Additionally, given the pressure that the Administration is likely to exert through the Department of Justice to “move” cases quickly through the Immigration Court system with little regard for due process and fundamental fairness, resort to the Article III Courts to require fair proceedings and an unbiased application of the laws becomes even more essential. Litigation in the U.S. District and Appellate Courts has turned out to be effective in forcing systemic change. However, virtually no unrepresented individual is going to be capable of getting to the Court of Appeals, let alone prevailing on a claim.

 

Obviously, the PIRC is a fantastic way to contribute to assertively protecting the due process rights of migrants. Internships and JLC positions at the Immigration Courts are also ways for law students and recent law grads to contribute to due process while learning.

 

As mentioned earlier, Mary and I have been working with groups looking for ways to expand the “accredited representative” program, which allows properly trained and certified individuals who are not lawyers to handle cases before the DHS and the Immigration Courts while working for certain nonprofit community organizations, on either a staff or volunteer basis. The “accredited representative” program is also an outstanding opportunity for retired individuals, like professors, teachers, and others who are not lawyers but who can qualify to provide pro bono representation in Immigration Court to needy migrants thorough properly recognized religious and community organizations.

 

Even if you are a lawyer not practicing immigration law, there are many outstanding opportunities to contribute by taking pro bono cases. Indeed, in my experience in Arlington, “big law” firms were some of the major contributors to highly effective pro bono representation. It was also great “hands on” experience for those seeking to hone their litigation skills.

           

Those of you with language and teaching skills can help out in English Language Learning programs for migrants. I have observed first hand that the better that individuals understand the language and culture of the US, the more successful they are in navigating our Immigration Court system and both assisting, and when necessary, challenging their representatives to perform at the highest levels. In other words, they are in a better position to be “informed consumers” of legal services.

           

Another critical area for focus is funding of nonprofit community-based organizations, like PIRC, and religious groups that assist migrants for little or no charge. Never has the need for such services been greater.

 

Many of these organizations receive at least some government funding for outreach efforts. We have already seen how the President has directed the DHS to “defund” outreach efforts and use the money instead for a program to assist victims of crimes committed by undocumented individuals.

 

Undoubtedly, with the huge emphases on military expansion and immigration enforcement, to the exclusion of other important programs, virtually all forms of funding for outreach efforts to migrants are likely to disappear in the very near future. Those who care about helping others will have to make up the deficit. So, at giving time, remember your community nonprofit organizations that are assisting foreign nationals.

 

Finally, as an informed voter and participant in our political process, you can advance the cause of Immigration Court reform and due process. For the last 16 years politicians of both parties have largely stood by and watched the unfolding due process disaster in the U.S. Immigration Courts without doing anything about it, and in some cases actually making it worse.

 

The notion that Immigration Court reform must be part of so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” is simply wrong. The Immigration Courts can and must be fixed sooner rather than later, regardless of what happens with overall immigration reform. It’s time to let your Senators and Representatives know that we need due process reforms in the Immigration Courts as one of our highest national priorities.

 

Folks, the U.S Immigration Court system is on the verge of collapse. And, there is every reason to believe that the misguided “enforce and detain to the max” policies being pursued by this Administration will drive the Immigration Courts over the edge. When that happens, a large chunk of the entire American justice system and the due process guarantees that make American great and different from most of the rest of the world will go down with it.

IV. CONCLUSION

 

In conclusion, I have shared with you the U.S. Immigration Court’s noble due process vision and the ways it currently is being undermined and disregarded. I have also shared with you some of my ideas for effective court reforms that would achieve the due process vision and how you can become involved in improving the process. Now is the time to take a stand for fundamental fairness! Join the New Due Process Army! Due process forever!

            Thanks again for inviting me and for listening. Congratulations again to our award winners and newly commissioned Generals of the New Due Process Army.

 

(06-08-17)