Musings on Events in U.S. Immigration Court, Immigration Law, Sports, and Other Random Topics by Retired United States Immigration Judge (Arlington, Virginia) and former Chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals Paul Wickham Schmidt. To see my complete professional bio, just click on the link below.
“As he awaits his fate in a remote Texas jail, Mr. Gutierrez, 54, remains convinced of the peril he faces if deported to his native country. “My life depends on this [appeal],” he said by telephone in a news conference organized Monday by the National Press Club. “I’m terrified to set foot in Mexico.”
The judge who denied asylum in the case, Robert S. Hough, pointed to an absence of documentary and testimonial corroboration of Mr. Gutierrez’s claim. The woman who relayed word of the alleged death threat did not come forward; neither did Mr. Gutierrez’s former boss at the newspaper for which he worked in Chihuahua. Much of Mr. Gutierrez’s case comes down to his word.
Nonetheless, the judge’s cut-and-dried application of the law fails to take into account conditions in Mexico generally and the peril faced there by journalists in particular. It’s not surprising that Mr. Gutierrez cannot recover copies of his articles, written more than a decade ago for a regional newspaper. Nor is it unusual that witnesses are reluctant to come forward, given the fear with which many Mexicans regard the security forces.
As a U.N. report published this month concluded, citing the deaths, disappearances and attacks on dozens of journalists tallied by Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, “The data . . . presents a picture for the situation of journalists in Mexico that cannot be described as other than catastrophic.” Against that background, it seems cavalier to dismiss the threat Mr. Gutierrez faces should he be deported to Mexico. He should be granted asylum.”
Read the complete Editorial at the link.
Unfortunately, a “cut and dried application of the law” without proper regard to the facts or reality is a disturbingly accurate snapshot of what all too often happens daily in our Immigration Courts, a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the US Department of Justice and part of the “Trump Conglomerate” (formerly known as the US Government).
Our failing US Immigration Court system and its aggravation by AG “Gonzo Apocalypto’s” oft-expressed hostility to immigrants, asylum, the rule of law (except his 1950s “Jim Crow” views on the law and how it should be a tool for injustice and advancing White Nationalism), lawyers, Latinos, Mexicans, and the press has become an almost daily topic for major editorial boards. At least someone (other than me) is watching and documenting as this mockery of American justice unfolds before us.
In particular, too many U.S. Immigration Judges are tone-deaf to Mexican asylum claims, not wanting to be accused of “opening the floodgates” ( a concept that is nowhere to be found in the actual law) and knowing that “Gonzo” wants lots of “quick removals” rather than asylum grants. Additionally, the only administrative check on the Immigration Judges’ authority is a weak Appeals Board that never “calls out” overly restrictive Immigration Judges by name and seldom publishes precedents granting asylum. Truly, a prescription for a “Due Process Disaster!”
Judge Hough seems to have forgotten that under the law:
”Corroborating evidence” can only be required if it is “reasonably available;”
Testimony may be corroborated by country condition information describing the same abuses that the applicant claims;
The standard for granting asylum is a generous “well-founded fear” or “reasonable likelihood” of future harm which can be “significantly less than probable — as little as a 10% chance can suffice;
Asylum applicants are supposed to be given the “benefit of the doubt” in recognition of the evidentiary challenges of providing proof of persecution and the difficulties of relating traumatic events in the past.
It remain to be seen whether the Board of Immigration Appeals, EOIR’s “Appellate Court,” will correct Judge Hough’s life-threatening errors and, further, issue a strong precedent on asylum for foreign journalists (traditionally one of the most vulnerable and persecuted groups) to prevent further miscarriages of Justice such as this. Such a precedent would also discourage the DHS from continuing to abuse our system by pushing for removal (and needless detention) in cases such as this where a grant of asylum at the DHS Asylum Office or at the hearing following the testimony would be the correct result.
Or, will the next major editorial describe and decry Mr. Gutierrez’s death in Mexico!
In a well-functioning justice system, this case should have been a “Short-docket, No-brainer Grant.” But, Gonzo Apocalypto seeks to use the US Immigration Courts as an extension of DHS enforcement rather than, as they were intended, as Courts guaranteeing fairness, Due Process, and equal justice for all! We need change. Lots of it!
[NOTE: For those interested, Judge Hough apparently has not decided enough asylum cases on the merits in El Paso to be listed on the statistical profile of asylum outcomes maintained by TRAC Immigration.]
In the next few weeks, four young men 16 to 24 years old were fatally shot by police during two incidents. Police on both occasions reported an “enfrentamiento,” or confrontation, in which gangsters fired on them. Relatives of the dead said that the officers killed the young men unprovoked.
As with much of the violence here, getting to the truth is difficult. Investigations are often cursory. Some residents said they are too afraid of the police to provide testimony. What is clear is many residents’ deep resentment of the security forces.
“We see the police as terrorists,” said an aunt of one of the four victims, 16-year-old Bryan Rodrigo Santos Arevalo.
The aunt, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of authorities, said that a witness who escaped told her that police had executed the teenager. The right side of Santos Arevalo’s face was blown off, morgue photos show.
If police were using lethal force, so were the gangs. On July 3, 2015, four local police officers were returning from a call when “they attacked us from both sides,” recalled a police supervisor who was present, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Gang members positioned on earthen mounds overlooking the road sprayed gunfire at the officers’ truck, he said. The police sped off, firing frantically, but the driver was hit in his left side. The supervisor was shot in the right knee.
“It’s a miracle that I am alive to tell this story,” the supervisor said.
Three days later, local police along with members of a San Salvador-based SWAT team shot and killed two members of the Tiny Malditos outside a farmhouse in Santa Teresa. The police reported taking gunfire on arrival. Morena Leiva de Silva, the mother of one of the dead, said a farmworker who was present told her that the officers shot the two gang members as they fled.
“They ran from the police because they were terrified,” she said. “They panicked.”
A truce ends
President Salvador Sánchez Cerén was a Marxist guerrilla in the 1980s. Now he is the one defending the state.
“Although some say we are at war, there is no other road,” Sánchez Cerén said in March.
The government of Sánchez Cerén’s predecessor, Mauricio Funes, had engineered a truce between major gangs, transferring their leaders into more lax prisons where they could coordinate with their followers. The homicide rate fell, although critics argued that the respite allowed the gangs to grow stronger.
On taking office in June 2014, Sánchez Cerén brought a swift end to the truce. His government transferred the leaders back to maximum-security lockups, banned visits and cut off cellphone access. He called up military reservists to join the fight against the gangs. The director of the national police announced that officers should feel free to use their weapons to protect themselves. New legislation made it harder to investigate police when they alleged self-defense.
Homicides shot up. Last year, police were responsible for an estimated 1,000 of the country’s 6,600 killings, a steep increase, experts say.
The gangs began targeting police, soldiers, prosecutors and their families in a way unseen. Gang members killed more than 60 police officers last year, nearly doubling the total the year before. Police have confiscated an increasing number of military-style assault rifles from gang members. The attorney general’s office recently accused one of the biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, of planning to assemble a 500-man unit of trained gang members to attack security forces. Last fall, a car rigged with explosives detonated outside the Finance Ministry.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned in June that allegations of assassinations by El Salvador’s security forces are “intolerable and are likely to fuel even greater violence.”
The national human rights prosecutor’s office, an independent agency, has compiled a registry of nearly 100 cases of alleged assassinations by security forces or shadowy “extermination groups,” which often include off-duty police, since mid-2013. But the agency acknowledges that there may be many more.
Walter Gerardo Alegria, a deputy head of the office, said it wasn’t clear whether such killings were ordered by authorities. “However, from the quantity of cases that we have, one can assume that this is a systematic practice,” he said.
The director of the national police, Howard Cotto, said he couldn’t rule out that some officers may have taken part in summary executions, but he denied that such behavior was permitted.
“We are not willing to tolerate that under the guise of solving security problems we cover up for people who commit crimes or summary executions,” he said.
The campaign against gangs has been popular among many Salvadorans. But it may come at a terrible cost to this young democracy, said Hector Silva Avalos, who has written a book on the Salvadoran police.
“If between death squads, citizen squads, rough police officers, they kill enough gang members to actually diminish the territorial control of the gangs — then who’s going to be in charge?” he asked. “Police commanders with no respect for human rights?”
This is only a small part of a lengthy article which is available at the above link.
This, not Gonzo’s bogus “Blame DACA Narrative” or his fabricated fraud narrative, is why women and children are fleeing from the Northern Triangle and are likely to continue to do so regardless of how much “deterrence” Gonzo & Gang throw at them. And, these folks have potentially legitimate claims that should be fully and impartially heard in Immigration Court with the assistance of counsel and full appeal rights. Even those who do not fit the “technical requirements” for legal protection under U.S. law might well have strong humanitarian claims for temporary refuge under Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) (which the last tow Administration ministrations have stubbornly refused to acknowledge) or prosecutorial discretion. We are hardly a “disinterested party” in the rampant violence that is now gripping Central America.
“The Attorney General’s Jaundiced–and Inaccurate–View of Asylum
by JASON DZUBOW on OCTOBER 17, 2017
In a speech last week to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (the office that administers the nation’s immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals), Attorney General and living Confederate Civil War monument, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, set out his views on the asylum system, asylum seekers, and immigration attorneys.
Jeff Sessions speaks to an audience at the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Sad to say, Mr. Sessions described the asylum system in largely negative terms, and said not a word about the benefits that our country derives from offering asylum.
While he views our asylum policy as “generous,” and designed to “protect those who, through no fault of their own, cannot co-exist in their home country no matter where they go because of persecution based on fundamental things like their religion or nationality,” Mr. Sessions feels that our generosity is being “abused” and that “smart attorneys have exploited loopholes in the law, court rulings, and lack of resources to substantially undermine the intent of Congress.”
Mr. Sessions also lambasts “dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process.”
Indeed, Mr. Sessions believes that our asylum system is “subject to rampant abuse and fraud.” Because the system is “overloaded with fake claims, it cannot deal effectively with just claims.”
First, it’s quite sad that our nation’s chief law enforcement officer would have such a jaundiced view of asylum. The idea that asylum is merely a generous benefit we offer to refugees, and that we receive nothing in return, is simply false. I’ve written about this point before, but it bears repeating. Asylum was created during the Cold War as a tool against the Soviet Union. We offered refuge to people fleeing Communism, and each person who defected to the West served as a testament to our system’s superiority over our adversary.
Now that the Cold War has ended, asylum still serves our strategic interests. It demonstrates our commitment to those who support and work for the values we believe in. It is tangible evidence that America stands with our friends. It gives our allies confidence that we will not let them down when times become tough. It shows that our foundational principles–free speech, religious liberty, equality, rule of law–are not empty words, but are ideals we actually stand behind.
And of course, there are the asylees themselves, who contribute to our country with their energy, enthusiasm, and patriotism, often born of their experience living in places that are not safe, and that are not free.
None of this came up during Mr. Sessions’s talk. Perhaps he does not know how our nation has benefited from the asylum system. Or maybe he doesn’t care. Or–what I suspect–he views asylum seekers as a threat to our security and a challenge to our country’s (Christian and Caucasian) culture.
The shame of it is that Mr. Sessions is demonstrably wrong on several points, and so possibly he reached his conclusions about asylum based on incorrect information.
The most obvious error is his claims that “dirty immigration lawyers… are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process.” Aliens who are “unlawfully present” in the U.S. are not subject to the credible fear process. That process is generally reserved for aliens arriving at the border who ask for asylum. Such applicants undergo a credible fear interview, which is an initial evaluation of eligibility for asylum. While this may be a technical point, Mr. Sessions raised the issue in a talk to EOIR, and so his audience presumably understands how the system works. That Mr. Sessions would make such a basic mistake in a speech to people who know better, demonstrates his ignorance of the subject matter (or at least the ignorance of his speech writers), and casts doubt on his over-all understanding of the asylum system.
Mr. Sessions also says that our asylum system is “overloaded with fake claims.” But how does he know this? And what exactly is a fake claim? In recent years, something like 40 to 50% of asylum cases have been granted. Are all those adjudicators being fooled? And what about denied cases? Are they all worthy of denial? There is, of course, anecdotal evidence of fraud—and in his talk, Mr. Sessions cites a few examples of “dirty” attorneys and applicants. But a few anecdotes does not compel a conclusion that the entire system is “subject to rampant abuse and fraud.” I can point to anecdotes as well. I’ve seen cases granted that I suspected were false, but I’ve also seen cases denied that were pretty clearly grant-worthy. While I do think we need to remain vigilant for fraud, I have not seen evidence to support the type of wide-spread fraud referenced by the Attorney General.
Finally, Mr. Sessions opines that “smart attorneys have exploited loopholes in the law, court rulings, and lack of resources to substantially undermine the intent of Congress.” So court rulings undermine the intent of Congress? Any attorney who makes such a statement casts doubt on that lawyer’s competence and devotion to the rule of law, but when the Attorney General says it, we have real cause for concern. Thousands of federal court rulings—including from the U.S. Supreme Court—have interpreted our nation’s immigration laws (and all our other laws too). That is what courts do, and that is how the intent of Congress is interpreted and implemented in real-world situations. Attorneys who rely on court decisions are not “exploit[ing] loopholes in the law,” we are following the law.
These are all pretty basic points, and it strikes me that when it comes to asylum, Mr. Sessions doesn’t get it. He seems not to understand the role of Congress, the courts, and lawyers in the asylum process. And he certainly doesn’t understand the benefits our country receives from the asylum system.
I’ve often said that President Trump’s maliciousness is tempered by his incompetence. With Attorney General Sessions, it is the opposite: His maliciousness is exacerbated by his incompetence. And I fear that asylum seekers–and our country’s devotion to the rule of law–will suffer because of it.”
Yup, sure got this one pegged right, Jason! “Maliciousness and incompetence” seem to be two of the key requirements for political appointees in the Trump Administration. I’ve pointed out before that Sessions demonstrates little legal knowledge — his memos, which disingenuously claim to be “law not policy,” are in fact almost pure policy largely devoid of legal reasoning.
Gonzo obviously arrived at the DOJ with a briefcase full of homophobic, xenophobic, White Nationalist memos already “pre-drafted” for him by folks like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council and restrictionist immigration groups. In addition to lack of legal knowledge and basic honesty (his explanation today to Senator Franken about how his “Russia lie” during confirmation didn’t pass the “straight face” test), Sessions shows no visible signs of compassion, humanity, understanding of other viewpoints, fairness, or objectivity. He consistently smears immigrants (and by extension the entire Hispanic community), denies their achievements and contributions to America, and, like any bully, picks on the already limited rights of the most vulnerable in our community, gays, children, women, and asylum seekers.
Sessions doesn’t understand asylum because he makes no attempt to understand it. He merely approaches it from a position of bias, fear, and loathing.
Few Americans know about our nation’s system of immigrant detention centers. Each year, the US government locks up roughly 440,000 immigrants in over 200 immigrant prisons. These facilities have grown into a highly privatized, lucrative, and abusive industry that profits off the misery of immigrants awaiting deportation.
Here at Brave New Films, we’re doing everything we can to expose the abuses of the deportation-industrial complex. In our new film, Immigrant Prisons, we explore conditions inside the detention centers, exposing substandard medical care, widespread physical and sexual abuse, virtual slave-labor working conditions and more. These abuses happen behind closed doors with little to no oversight.
Our film, created in partnership with advocates for detainee rights, is shining a light on a particularly dark corner of the American justice system. Watch now and share with friends.
It’s important to remember that immigration detention is a civil form of confinement. “This is not criminal custody, this is not someone who’s been convicted of a crime,” says attorney James Fife of the Federal Defenders of San Diego. “This is just someone who’s being held for the government’s convenience so that the person’s available” for processing, said Fife.
Unlike with criminals who have been convicted of a crime, there’s no time limit on how long people can be held at immigration detention centers. It’s hard to believe, but immigrants can be locked up indefinitely without a criminal offense or bond hearing. In the film we highlight the case of a Kenyan immigrant, Sylvester, who spent nine years and four months in immigration detention. Another immigrant describes her time in detention as being “like a legal kidnapping.”
Immigrant detention centers are overseen by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Since ICE was created in 2003, there have been 177 confirmed deaths in detention centers. Medical neglect is the greatest contributing factor.
In the film, we speak with Gerard, a former detainee who almost died during his 11 months at a California facility. He was denied medical care for two weeks as a severe infection spread in his body. The private-facility managers kept ignoring his requests until it was nearly too late. Such medical neglect contributed to nearly half of all deaths in immigrant prisons.
Christina Fialho, the executive director of CIVIC and a leading advocate for detainee rights, says that “denial of medical care at immigration-detention facilities is routine.” This substandard medical care is often accompanied by substandard food, unsanitary water, and generally unhygienic living conditions.
Fialho says that immigrant-detention centers are also plagued by abuse. “Guards with little to no training are kicking, hitting, sexually assaulting people in immigration detention,” she says. Each year thousands of complaints alleging sexual and physical abuse and substandard medical care are filed with authorities, but very few cases are ever investigated.
Adding insult to injury, detainees at for-profit detention centers are often coerced into working for virtually no money. The for-profit companies that run the facilities have all the wrong incentives and a captive workforce at their disposal. The food they provide detainees is frequently so inadequate that detainees feel they have no choice but to work for $1 a day to buy additional food from the commissary, often at inflated prices. Fialho doesn’t mince words about this practice: “Detention centers are starving people into working in order to then cut staff salaries.”
The two largest private detention-center operators, CCA and Geo Group, got started in the 1980s. In fact, CCA’s very first contract was for locking up immigrants. In the past 20 years, the two companies have made over $12 billion in profits, largely from immigrant detention.
Wrongful-death lawsuits and class-action lawsuits alleging forced labor have helped expose abuses at private immigrant prisons, but systemic reforms are needed. Stock in CCA and Geo Group slid after the Obama administration moved to end the use of private prisons by the federal government, but the stocks rocketed up after the 2016 election. President Trump, who received major contributions from the private-prison industry, reversed President Obama’s order on private prison use and has proposed a 25 percent increase in ICE’s budget.
Immigrant Prisons is our first film on the deportation industrial complex. In future films we’ll explore how private-prison companies promote policies and procedures that line their own pockets, and profile the individuals who are working to perpetuate our abusive immigration-enforcement system.
Unlike the private prison industry, we don’t have millions to spend on advertising and lobbying. But there is a powerful grassroots movement rising up in this country to take on abuses in our immigration system.
I hope you will join the movement and share Immigrant Prisons with your networks. You can also screen the film for free at schools, houses of worship, and community meetings for local media and elected officials through our Brave New Educators program. Together we can bring detained immigrants out from the darkness and provide them with the respect and dignity that we owe to all people.
We premiered the film last night in Santa Monica with our friends at The Young Turks. Cenk Uygur moderated a panel which included Pastor Noe who was recently released from an immigrant prison. If you or someone you know has a powerful story about immigrant prisons, please get in touch.
Mica Rosenberg, Read Levinson, & Ryan McNeill report:
“They fled danger at home to make a high-stakes bet on U.S. immigration courts
Threatened by gangs in Honduras, two women sought asylum in the United States. Their stories illustrate what a Reuters analysis of thousands of court decisions found: The difference between residency and deportation depends largely on who hears the case, and where.
OAKLAND, California – The two Honduran women told nearly identical stories to the immigration courts: Fear for their lives and for the lives of their children drove them to seek asylum in the United States.
They were elected in 2013 to the board of the parent-teacher association at their children’s school in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. They hoped that mothers working together could oust the violent gangs that plagued the campus.
Instead, they became targets. Weeks apart, in the spring of 2014, each of the women was confronted by armed gang members who vowed to kill them and their children if they didn’t meet the thugs’ demands.
Unaware of each other’s plight, both fled with their children, making the dangerous trek across Mexico. Both were taken into custody near Hidalgo, Texas, and ended up finding each other in the same U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. There, they applied for asylum.
That’s when their fates diverged.
Sandra Gutierrez joined her husband in California, where her case was heard by a San Francisco immigration court judge. At the end of her asylum hearing in September 2016, she received a one-page form, with an “X” in the box next to “granted.” She was free to settle into life with her family in the United States.
The other woman, Ana, joined her daughter’s father in the southeastern United States, and her case was assigned to an immigration court in Charlotte, North Carolina. The judge denied her petition and ordered her deported. She is now awaiting a court date after new lawyers got her case reopened.
Ana declined to be interviewed for this article. Through her lawyers, she asked that her full name not be used because of her uncertain status and her fear that Honduran gangs could find her.
The women’s lawyers framed their respective cases with some important differences. However, the women said their reasons for seeking asylum were the same: Gangs had targeted them because of their involvement in the parent-teacher association, and for that, they and their families had been threatened.
Taken together, the two cases – nearly indistinguishable in their outlines but with opposite outcomes – illustrate a troubling fact: An immigrant’s chance of being allowed to stay in the United States depends largely on who hears the case and where it is heard.
Judge Stuart Couch, who heard Ana’s case in Charlotte, orders immigrants deported 89 percent of the time, according to a Reuters analysis of more than 370,000 cases heard in all 58 U.S. immigration courts over the past 10 years. Judge Dalin Holyoak, who heard Gutierrez’s case in San Francisco, orders deportation in 43 percent of cases.
In Charlotte, immigrants are ordered deported in 84 percent of cases, more than twice the rate in San Francisco, where 36 percent of cases end in deportation.
Couch and Holyoak and their courts are not rare outliers, the analysis found. Variations among judges and courts are broad.
Judge Olivia Cassin in New York City allows immigrants to remain in the country in 93 percent of cases she hears. Judge Monique Harris in Houston allows immigrants to stay in just four percent of cases. In Atlanta, 89 percent of cases result in a deportation order. In New York City, 24 percent do.
The Reuters analysis used data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the U.S. Justice Department unit that oversees immigration courts. The count of deportations included cases in which judges allowed immigrants to leave the country voluntarily.
The analysis excluded immigrants who were in detention when their cases were heard because such cases are handled differently. It also excluded cases in which the immigrant did not appear in court, which nearly always end in a deportation order, and cases terminated without a decision or closed at the request of a prosecutor.
About half the cases in the analysis were filed by asylum seekers like the two Honduran women. The rest were requests for cancellation of deportation orders or other adjustments to immigration status.
Of course, other factors influence outcomes in immigration court. For example, U.S. government policy is more lenient toward people from some countries, less so for others.
Also, immigration judges are bound by precedents established in the federal appeals court that covers their location. Immigration courts in California and the Pacific Northwest fall under the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and they rule in favor of immigrants far more often than courts in the 4th Circuit, which includes North and South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia, Reuters found.
Even so, the Reuters analysis determined that after controlling for such factors, who hears a case and where it is heard remain reliable predictors of how a case will be decided. An immigrant was still four times as likely to be granted asylum by Holyoak in San Francisco as by Couch in Charlotte.
The Reuters analysis also found that an immigration judge’s particular characteristics and situation can affect outcomes. Men are more likely than women to order deportation, as are judges who have worked as ICE prosecutors. The longer a judge has been serving, the more likely that judge is to grant asylum.
“These are life or death matters. … Whether you win or whether you lose shouldn’t depend on the roll of the dice of which judge gets your case.”
The findings underscore what academics and government watchdogs have long complained about U.S. immigration courts: Differences among judges and courts can render the system unfair and even inhumane.
“It is clearly troubling when you have these kinds of gross disparities,” said Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings School of the Law in San Francisco. “These are life or death matters. … Whether you win or whether you lose shouldn’t depend on the roll of the dice of which judge gets your case.”
EOIR spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said the agency does not comment on external analyses of its data.
Devin O’Malley, a Department of Justice spokesman, challenged the Reuters analysis, citing “numerous conflicting statements, miscalculations, and other data errors,” but declined to elaborate further.
Immigration judges, appointed by the U.S. attorney general, are not authorized to speak on the record about cases.
Dana Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said each case is like “a 1,000 piece puzzle.” While two cases might look identical on the surface, she said, each judge has to weigh the nuances of immigration law to allow someone to stay in the country, which could lead to different outcomes.
The question of equality of treatment among judges has gained urgency as the number of cases in immigration court has ballooned to record highs. Under President Barack Obama, the courts began efforts to hire more immigration judges to reduce the system’s burgeoning backlog, which now stands at more than 620,000 cases, nearly 100,000 of them added since last December.
The administration of President Donald Trump is continuing the effort. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April that the Justice Department planned to hire more than 50 judges this year and 75 in 2018, which would put the total number of sitting judges above 400.
Of the 28 immigration judges Sessions has appointed so far, 16 are former ICE prosecutors. That experience, the Reuters analysis found, makes them 23 percent more likely to order deportation. (Neither Holyoak nor Couch worked as an ICE prosecutor, according to their EOIR biographies.)
In a wish list of immigration proposals sent to Congress on Oct. 8, the White House said that “lax legal standards” had led to the immigration court backlog and that “misguided judicial decisions have prevented the removal of numerous criminal aliens, while also rendering those aliens eligible to apply for asylum.” Among the proposals offered in exchange for a deal with Congress on the roughly 800,000 “dreamers” – children brought to the country illegally by their parents – the Trump administration said it wanted to hire even more immigration judges and 1,000 ICE attorneys, while “establishing performance metrics for Immigration Judges.”
CRISIS AT THE BORDER
In 2014, an unprecedented 68,000 parents and children, most of them fleeing violence and lawlessness in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, crossed into the United States from Mexico – a refugee crisis that has contributed to the bloated backlog of asylum petitions. Many of the migrants, including Gutierrez and Ana, convinced initial interviewers that they had a “credible fear” of returning home, the first step in filing an asylum claim.
Having come from a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world may have helped establish “credible fear.” But the two women were already at a disadvantage – precisely because they came from Honduras.
Country of origin is a big factor in determining who gets to stay in the United States because immigrants from some countries are afforded special protections. For example, courts ruled in favor of Chinese immigrants 75 percent of the time, the Reuters analysis found. A 1996 law expanded the definition of political refugees to include people who are forced to abort a child or undergo sterilization, allowing Chinese women to claim persecution under Beijing’s coercive birth-control policies.
Hondurans enjoy no special considerations. They were allowed to stay in the United States in just 16 percent of cases, the Reuters analysis found.
The mass exodus from Central America was under way when Gutierrez and Ana were elected to the board of the parent-teacher association at their children’s school in spring 2013.
Two rival gangs – the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13 – were operating brazenly in the neighborhood. The year before, according to police records in Honduras, gang members killed a school security guard. Now, they were extorting teachers, selling drugs openly and assaulting or killing anyone who confronted them.
The new six-member association board set about trying to improve security at the school, which sits on a dirt road behind a high wall topped with razor wire.
“Before, no one wanted to say anything about the gangs,” Gutierrez said. “We were the brave ones. The previous president was a man, so we thought, ‘We are women, they won’t do anything to us.’ ”
The school’s principal, who asked that he and the school not be identified out of fear of retaliation, worked with the board. They had early success, he said, when they persuaded police to provide officers to guard the school. But the patrols left after a few weeks, probably intimidated by the gangs.
One evening in April 2014, Gutierrez was watching television at home with her two sons, ages 5 and 11, when she heard banging at the front door. Her older boy recognized the three armed and heavily tattooed young men on the stoop as the same ones who had thrown him to the ground earlier that day, telling him, not for the first time, that they wanted him to join their ranks. Now they had come to deliver a message to Gutierrez.
“They said they knew I was involved in the parents’ association,” Gutierrez said. “They said they would kill me and my children.
“I began to panic and shake,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have to go now. I am not going to risk my child’s life.’ ”
She quickly packed some backpacks for her and her children and called the only friend she knew who had a car. They drove all night to her friend’s mother’s house in another town.
“NO POLICE HERE”
Two months later, according to court documents, Ana was walking her 7-year-old daughter home from school when three members of a rival gang confronted them. Two of them grabbed Ana and her daughter, pinned their wrists behind their backs, and pointed a gun at the child’s head. The third pointed a gun at Ana’s head. They demanded that a payment of more than $5,000 be delivered in 24 hours, a huge sum for a woman who sold tortillas for a living.
Ana testified in her asylum hearing that she knew they were gang members “because they were dressed in baggy clothing and they also had ugly tattoos … all over their bodies and faces.”
Ana and her daughter ran home and then, fearing the gang would come after them, fled out the back door. “We had to jump over a wall, and I hurt my foot doing so,” she said in an affidavit. “I was desperate and knew that I had to leave – my daughter’s life and mine were in danger.”
The school principal said he understands why Gutierrez and Ana left Honduras. “Because there were no police here, (the gangs) did what they wanted,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to kill the members of the parent-teacher association to get them out of here.’ So the women fled.”
Gutierrez hid for two months at her friend’s mother’s house outside Tegucigalpa. She joined another woman and, with their children, they set out to cross Mexico. On the journey, they were kidnapped – common for Central American migrants – and held for a $3,500 ransom. Gutierrez contacted relatives who wired the money. The kidnappers released her and her two sons near the U.S. border.
There they piled with another group of migrants into an inflatable raft and crossed the Rio Grande, the border between Mexico and the United States. They landed near Hidalgo, Texas.
After walking for an hour and a half, lost and desperate, Gutierrez and her sons sat down in the middle of a dirt road and waited for someone to pass. Two officials in uniforms picked them up. They were eventually transferred to the ICE detention center in Artesia.
Ana fled with her daughter the night the gang members threatened them on the street. “We bought a bus pass to go to Guatemala and from Guatemala to Mexico and to the U.S.-Mexico border,” according to her court testimony. The journey took three weeks. In Mexico, she hired a coyote – a smuggler – to help them cross into the United States and then turned herself in to Border Patrol agents near Hidalgo. She arrived at the Artesia detention center just weeks after Gutierrez.
“The other women in the center told me that there was someone else from Honduras who I might know, but I wasn’t sure who they were talking about,” Gutierrez said. “And then one day we went to lunch, and there they were.”
Gutierrez said that was when she first learned that her fellow parent-teacher association board member had been threatened and had fled from home.
Volunteer lawyers helped the women prepare and submit their applications for asylum.
In late 2014, the two women were released on bond. Gutierrez moved with her boys to Oakland, California, to join her husband, and petitioned to have her case moved to San Francisco. Ana moved with her daughter to live with her daughter’s father and petitioned to have her case moved to Charlotte.
“ASYLUM FREE ZONES”
Many immigrants released on bond before their cases are heard have no idea that where they settle could make the difference between obtaining legal status and deportation.
People familiar with the system are well aware of the difference. When Theodore Murphy, a former ICE prosecutor who now represents immigrants, has a client in a jurisdiction with a high deportation rate but near one with a lower rate, “I tell them to move,” he said.
The Charlotte court that would hear Ana’s case was one of five jurisdictions labeled “asylum free zones” by a group of immigrant advocates in written testimony last December before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The courts in Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas and Atlanta also received the designation.
The advocates testified that, while asylum is granted in nearly half of cases nationwide, Charlotte judges granted asylum in just 13 percent of cases in 2015. The Charlotte court was singled out for displaying a particular “bias against Central American gang and gender-related asylum claims.”
Couch is the toughest of Charlotte’s three immigration judges, according to the Reuters analysis.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization at Syracuse University in New York, first sounded the alarm about disparities in immigration court decisions in 2006. The next year, researchers at Temple University and Georgetown Law School concluded in a study titled “Refugee Roulette” that “in many cases, the most important moment in an asylum case is the instant in which a clerk randomly assigns an application to a particular asylum officer or immigration judge.” In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found similar disparities in its own study.
In response to the rising criticism, the Executive Office for Immigration Review began tracking decisions to identify judges with unusually high or low rates of granting asylum. Mattingly, the EOIR spokeswoman, said the agency held training sessions for judges to address the disparities in 2008 and 2009. It then created a system for the public to file complaints against immigration judges.
In a 2016 report, the GAO found that little had changed. EOIR held a two-day training session last year. There is no training on the 2017 calendar.
From 2012 to 2016, EOIR received 624 complaints against judges. The 138 complaints lodged in 2016 alone included allegations of bias, as well as concerns about due process and judges’ conduct within the courtroom. Of the 102 complaints that had been resolved when the data were published, only three resulted in discipline, defined as “reprimand” or “suspension” of the judge. “Corrective actions” such as counseling or training were taken in 39 cases. Close to half the complaints were dismissed.
The agency does not identify judges who were the subjects of complaints.
Mattingly, the EOIR spokeswoman, said the agency “takes seriously any claims of unjustified and significant anomalies in immigration judge decision-making and takes steps to evaluate disparities in immigration adjudications.”
DAY IN COURT
Asylum applicants cannot gain legal U.S. residency because they fled their countries in mortal fear of civil strife or rampant crime or a natural disaster. They must convince the court that they have well-founded fears of persecution in their country because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group. The definition of a “particular social group” has been subject to conflicting interpretations in the courts, but in general, such a group comprises people who share basic beliefs or traits that can’t or shouldn’t have to be changed.
In the San Francisco court, Gutierrez’s lawyers argued that she qualified for asylum because as a leader of the parent-teacher association, she was at risk for her political opinion – her stand against gangs – and for belonging to a particular social group of Hondurans opposed to gang violence and recruitment in schools. The lawyers also argued that she was part of another particular social group as the family member of someone under threat, since the gangs had terrorized her son in trying to recruit him.
Holyoak was convinced. Gutierrez told Reuters that during her final hearing, the judge apologized for asking so many questions about what had been a painful time in her life, explaining that he had needed to establish her credibility.
In the Charlotte court, Ana’s lawyer focused more narrowly on her political opinion, arguing that she was at risk of persecution for her opposition to gangs in her position on the parent-teacher association board.
After hearing Ana’s case, Couch concluded in his written opinion that Ana was not eligible for asylum because she had “not demonstrated a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of a statutorily protected ground.” He wasn’t convinced that she risked persecution in Honduras because of her political opinion.
Well-established law recognizes family as a protected social group, according to the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies. Cases that claim opposition to gangs as a protected political opinion, the center says, have generated fewer precedent-setting decisions, making that argument a more difficult one to win in court, though it has prevailed in some cases.
Ana’s response to Couch’s extensive questioning played a part in the decision. In immigration court, the asylum seeker is typically the only witness. As a result, “credibility is really the key factor. Persecutors don’t give affidavits,” said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge who now works at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit organization that supports lower levels of immigration.
Couch wrote in his opinion that Ana’s difficulty recounting the names of the women on the association board weighed against her credibility. He noted that she testified about her fears of the gang “with a flat affect and little emotion,” displaying a “poor demeanor” that “did not support her credibility.”
The judge also questioned why, in an early interview with an asylum officer, Ana never mentioned threats to the parent-teacher association, and instead said she thought the gangs were targeting her for the money her daughter’s father was sending from the United States to build a house in Honduras.
Ana’s assertion that she learned from Gutierrez in detention about gang threats to the parent-teacher association was not “persuasive,” Couch wrote. “The evidence indicates this is a case of criminal extortion that the respondent attempts to fashion into an imputed political opinion claim.”
“SOMEONE WANTS TO KILL THEM”
Gutierrez said Ana told her in one of their occasional phone conversations that she felt intimidated by the intense questioning of the ICE attorney. Gutierrez also said her friend “is very forgetful. … It’s not that she is lying. It’s just that she forgets things.”
Lisa Knox, the lawyer who represented Gutierrez, said judges where she practices tend to give applicants the benefit of the doubt. “They have more understanding of trauma survivors and the difficulty they might have in recounting certain details and little discrepancies,” she said.
Further, Knox said, asylum seekers aren’t thinking about the finer points of U.S. asylum law when they are fleeing persecution. “People show up in our office (and) they have no idea why someone wants to kill them. They just know someone wants to kill them.”
Ana’s lawyer appealed her case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the first step in the appellate process. This time, her lawyer included arguments about her membership in a particular social group. She lost. In a three-page ruling, one board member said Ana’s lawyer could not introduce a new argument on appeal and agreed with Couch that Ana hadn’t proved a political motive behind the gang members’ attack.
Ana missed the deadline to appeal the BIA decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because her lawyer confused the deadline. She petitioned the BIA through new lawyers to reopen her case and send it back to the immigration court to allow her to present new evidence of her persecution. The new lawyers argued that her previous representation had been ineffective.
In July, the BIA granted Ana the right to a rehearing in immigration court, sending her case back to Charlotte, where it could be heard again by Couch.
Gutierrez can live and work legally in the United States and will ultimately be able to apply for citizenship. The 43-year-old, who worked as a nurse in Honduras, lives in a small one-bedroom apartment with her husband, her two sons – now 15 and 8 – her adult daughter and her grandson. She works as an office janitor and is taking English classes. Her boys are in school. The older one, once threatened by gangs in Honduras, likes studying history and math and is learning to play the cello.
Ana, 31, has had a baby since arriving in the United States and has been granted work authorization while she awaits a final decision on her case. She and her lawyers declined to share more detailed information about her situation because she remains fearful of the gangs in Honduras.
“I am very worried about her,” Gutierrez said. “The situation in our country is getting worse and worse.”
Last February, a 50-year-old woman and her 29-year-old son who were selling food at the school Gutierrez and Ana’s children attended were kidnapped from their home and decapitated, according to police records.
The head of the son was placed on the body of the mother and the head of the mother was placed on the body of the son. The murders, like more than 93 percent of crimes in Honduras, remain unsolved.
Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia and Kristina Cooke
A not-quite-independent judiciary
U.S. immigration courts are administrative courts within the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. Unlike federal court judges, whose authority stems from the U.S. Constitution’s establishment of an independent judicial branch, immigration judges fall under the executive branch and thus are hired, and can be fired, by the attorney general.
More than 300 judges are spread among 58 U.S. immigration courts in 27 states, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. Cases are assigned to an immigration court based on where the immigrant lives. Within each court, cases are assigned to judges on a random, rotational basis.
The courts handle cases to determine whether an individual should be deported. Possible outcomes include asylum; adjustments of status; stay of deportation; and deportation. Decisions can be appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, an administrative body within the Department of Justice. From there, cases can be appealed to federal appeals court.
The Federal Bar Association and the National Association of Immigration Judges have endorsed the idea of creating an immigration court system independent of the executive branch. The Government Accountability Office studied some proposals for reform in 2017, without endorsing any particular model.
By Mica Rosenberg in Oakland, California, and Reade Levinson and Ryan McNeill in New York, with additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco
Data: Reade Levinson and Ryan McNeill
Graphics: Ashlyn Still
Photo editing: Steve McKinley and Barbara Adhiya
Video: Zachary Goelman
Design: Jeff Magness
Edited by Sue Horton, Janet Roberts and John Blanton”
Go to the link at the beginning to get the full benefit of the “interactive” features of this report on Reuters.
Also, here is an interactive presentation on the Trump Administration’s overall immigration policies:
Interesting to note that the Arlington Immigration Court, where I sat for 13 years, has one of the most consistent “grant rates” in the country, ranging from approximately 54% to 60% grants. Compare that with the Charlotte Immigration Court at 11% to 28% grants within the same judicial circuit (the Fourth Circuit). Something is seriously wrong here. And, Jeff Sessions has absolutely no intent of solving it except by pushing for 100% denials everywhere! That’s the very definition of a “Kangaroo Court!”
It’s time for an Article I Court. But, not sure it will happen any time soon. Meanwhile Sessions is making a mockery out of justice in the Immigration Courts just as he has in many other parts of the U.S. Justice system.
“Marco Coello, then a skinny 18-year-old high school student, was grabbed by plainclothes agents of the Venezuelan security services as he joined a 2014 demonstration against the government in Caracas.
They put a gun to his head. They attacked him with their feet, a golf club, a fire extinguisher. They tortured him with electric shocks. Then Mr. Coello was jailed for several months, and shortly after his release, he fled to the United States.
Human Rights Watch extensively documented his case in a report that year. The State Department included him in its own human rights report on Venezuela in 2015. With such an extensive paper trail of mistreatment in his home country, his lawyer, Elizabeth Blandon, expected a straightforward asylum interview when Mr. Coello appeared at an immigration office this April in Miami.
“I had this very naïve idea that we were going to walk in there and the officer was going to say, ‘It’s an honor to meet you,’” said Ms. Blandon, an immigration law expert in Weston, Fla.
Instead, he was arrested and taken to a detention facility on the edge of the Everglades. He was now a candidate for deportation. “Every time they would move me around, I would fear that they were going to take me to deport me,” said Mr. Coello, now 22.
Mr. Coello’s case drew extensive media coverage in both Miami and Caracas and, eventually, the intervention of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. The senator helped secure Mr. Coello’s release, though he could still be deported.
The case may have been a sign of just how far the government is willing to go to carry out President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
“It’s very unusual — almost unprecedented — that ICE would arrest an asylum applicant who is at a U.S.C.I.S. office waiting for their asylum interview,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School.”
Just because arresting individuals believed to be in the U.S. without authorization is legal doesn’t mean that it’s not stupid or wasteful in many cases. Cases like this belong in the Asylum Office.
In a well-functioning system, Mr. Coello likely would have been granted asylum following his interview. Instead, he’s on an already overcrowded U.S. Immigration Court docket with a merits hearing scheduled for approximately one year from now.
What does the U.S. gain from these types of wasteful enforcement actions? What message are we sending to Mr. Coello and others who will eventually become full members of our society? What kind of messages are we sending to Venezuela and those attempting to escape from some of the world’s most brutal governments?
Read Nicholas’s complete report, which contains more quotations from me and others, at the above link.