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.
“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.
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.
“The Department of Justice (DOJ) is reportedly intending to implement numerical quotas on Immigration Judges as a way of evaluating their performance. This move would undermine judicial independence, threaten the integrity of the immigration court system, and cause massive due process violations.
As it currently stands, Immigration Judges are not rated based on the number of cases they complete within a certain time frame. The DOJ – currently in settlement negotiations with the union for immigration judges, the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) – is now trying to remove those safeguards, declaring a need to accelerate deportations to reduce the court’s case backlog and ensure more individuals are deported.
This move is unprecedented, as immigration judges have been exempt from performance evaluations tied to case completion rates for over two decades. According to the NAIJ, the basis for the exemption was “rooted in the notion that ratings created an inherent risk of actual or perceived influence by supervisors on the work of judges, with the potential of improperly affecting the outcome of cases.”
If case completion quotas are imposed, Immigration Judges will be pressured to adjudicate cases more quickly, unfairly fast-tracking the deportation of those with valid claims for relief. Asylum seekers may need more time to obtain evidence that will strengthen their case or find an attorney to represent them. Only 37 percent of all immigrants (and merely 14 percent of detained immigrants) are able to secure legal counsel in their removal cases, even though immigrants with attorneys fare much better at every stage of the court process.
If judges feel compelled to dispose of cases quickly decreasing the chances that immigrants will be able to get an attorney, immigrants will pay the price, at incredible risk to their livelihood.
The Justice Department has expressed concern in recent weeks about the enormous backlog of 600,000 cases pending before the immigration courts and may see numerical quotas as an easy fix. Just this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on Congress to tighten up rules for people seeking to “game” the system by exploiting loopholes in a “broken” and extremely backlogged process. However, punishing immigration judges with mandatory quotas is not the solution.
The announcement, however, has sparked condemnation by immigration judges and attorneys alike; in fact, the national IJ Union maintains that such a move means “trying to turn immigration judges into assembly-line workers.”
Tying the number of cases completed to the evaluation of an individual immigration judge’s performance represents the administration’s latest move to accelerate deportations at the expense of due process. Judges may be forced to violate their duty to be fair and impartial in deciding their cases.”
The backlog problems in U.S. Immigration Court have nothing to do with “low productivity” by U.S. Immigration Judges.
It’s a result of a fundamentally flawed system created by Congress, years of inattention and ineffective oversight by Congress, political interference by the DOJ with court dockets and scheduling, years of “ADR,” and glaringly incompetent so-called judicial management by DOJ. There are “too many chefs stirring the pot” and too few “real cooks” out there doing the job.
The DOJ’s inappropriate “Vatican style” bureaucracy has produced a bloated and detached central administrative staff trying unsuccessfully to micromanage a minimalist, starving court system in a manner that keeps enforcement-driven politicos happy and, therefore, their jobs intact.
How could a court system set up in this absurd manner possibly “guarantee fairness and due process for all?” It can’t, and has stopped even pretending to be focused on that overriding mission! And what competence would Jeff Sessions (who was turned down for a Federal judgeship by members of his own party because of his record of bias) and administrators at EOIR HQ in Falls Church, who don’t actually handle Immigration Court dockets on a regular basis, have to establish “quotas” for those who do? No, it’s very obvious that the “quotas” will be directed at only one goal: maximizing removals while minimizing due process
When EOIR was established during the Reagan Administration the DOJ recognized that case completion quotas would interfere with judicial independence. What’s changed in the intervening 34 years?
Two things have changed: 1) the overtly political climate within the DOJ which now sees the Immigration Courts as part of the immigration enforcement apparatus (as it was before EOIR was created); and 2) the huge backlogs resulting from years of ADR, “inbreeding,” and incompetent management by the DOJ. This, in turn, requires the DOJ to find “scapegoats” like Immigration Judges, asylum applicants, unaccompanied children, and private attorneys to shift the blame for their own inappropriate behavior and incompetent administration of the Immigration Courts.
In U.S. Government parlance, there’s a term for that: fraud, waste, and abuse!
The Oct. 13 news article “Citing ‘rampant abuse and fraud,’ Sessions urges tighter asylum rules” quoted Attorney General Jeff Sessions as saying that many asylum claims “lacked merit” and are “simply a ruse to enter the country illegally.” As one of the “dirty immigration lawyers” who has represented hundreds of asylum seekers, I find these claims wildly inaccurate and dangerous. When I ask my clients, the majority of them children, why they came to the came to the United States, they invariably tell me the same thing: I had no choice — I was running for my
life. Indeed, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 58 per cent of Northern Triangle and Mexican children displaced in the United States suffered or faced harms that indicated need for international protection. These children are not gaming the system; they are seeking refuge from rampant gender based violence, MS-13 death threats and child abuse.
While I like to think I am a “smart” attorney, even immigrants represented by the smartest attorneys do not stand a chance in places such as Atlanta, where the asylum grant rate is as low as 2 per cent. Yes, reform is needed, but the only reform we should consider is one that provides more robust protections and recognizes our moral and legal obligation to protect asylum seekers.
Nickole Miller, Baltimore The writer is a lawyer with the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Nickole speaks truth. Almost all of the “credible fear” reviews involving folks from the Northern Triangle that I performed as a U.S. Immigration Judge, both at the border and in Arlington, presented plausible claims for at least protection under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”) if the rules were properly applied (which they often are not in Immigration Court — there is a strong bias against granting even the minimal protection that CAT provides). Many also had plausible gender-based, religious, or political asylum claims if they were allowed to gather the necessary evidence.
Whether ultimately successful or not, these individuals were clearly entitled to their day in court, to be listened to by an unbiased judicial decision maker, to have the reasons for the decision to accept or reject them carefully explained in language they can understand, and to have a right to appeal to a higher authority.
Of course, without a lawyer and some knowledge of the complicated CAT regulations and administrative and Federal Court case-law, a CAT applicant would have about “0 chance” of success. The same is true of asylum which requires proof not only of the possibility of future harm, but also proof of causal relationship to a “protected ground” an arcane concept which most unfamiliar with asylum law cannot grasp.
In other words, our system sends back individuals who have established legitimate fears of death, rape, or torture, just because they fail to show that it is “on account” of race, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. These concepts are often applied, particularly in Immigration Court where respondents are unrepresented, in the manner “most unfavorable” to the claimant. This is in direct violation of the U.N. guidance which holds that credible asylum seekers should be given “the benefit of the doubt.”
Moreover, assuming that we have the “right” to send good folks, who have done no wrong, back to be harmed in the Northern Triangle, that doesn’t mean that we should be doing so as either a legal or moral matter. That’s what devices like Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”), Deferred Enforced Departure (“DED”), and just “plain old Prosecutorial Discretion (“PD”) are for: to save lives and maintain the status quo while deferring the more difficult decisions on permanent protection until later. Obviously, this would also allow at least minimal protections to be granted by DHS outside the Immigration Court system, thus relieving the courts of thousands of cases, but without endangering lives, legal rights, or due process.
I agree with Nickole that the “asylum reform” needed is exactly the opposite of that being proposed by restrictionist opportunists like Trump and Sessions. The first step would be insuring that individuals seeking protections in Immigration Court have a right to a hearing before a real, impartial judicial official who will apply the law fairly and impartially, and who does not work for the Executive Branch and therefore is more likely to be free from the type of anti-asylum and anti-migrant bias overtly demonstrated by Sessions and other enforcement officials.
But Republicans don’t need Democrats’ votes, and now Barrett, a 45-year-old law professor at the University of Notre Dame, is all but certain to be confirmed to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit — a court one level below the Supreme Court.
Barrett is the model judicial candidate for this White House: young, conservative, and opposed to abortion and LGBTQ rights. For all the stories about President Donald Trump using his executive power to roll back civil rights protections — in the past day, his administration axed the ACA birth control benefit and ended workplace protections for transgender people — it is here, on the courts, where his team is working most aggressively to reshape the country.
“Trump’s speed in nominating judges has been perhaps the most successful aspect of his presidency,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in judicial nominations. “Trump has easily surpassed Obama, Bush and Clinton at this point in the first year of their presidencies in terms of the sheer number nominated.”
He has. Ten months in, Trump has nominated 17 circuit court judges and 39 district court judges. That’s far more than former President Barack Obama’s seven circuit court nominees and four district court nominees by this point in his first year of office. Former President George W. Bush had nominated 11 circuit judges and 31 district judges by this point.
He’s also got more court seats to fill. He inherited a whopping 108 court vacancies when he became president ― double the number of vacancies Obama inherited when he took office. That’s largely due to Republicans’ years-long strategy of denying votes to Obama’s court picks to keep those seats empty for a future GOP president to fill. It worked.
If Trump’s current judicial nominees are a preview of the kinds of judges he plans to nominate in the coming years, prepare for a significantly more socially conservative group of people shaping the nation’s laws.
The Senate also confirmed Kevin Newsom, 44, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in August. He wrote a 2000 law review article equating the rationale of Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 decision upholding slavery. He also argued in a 2005 article for the Federalist Society, a right-wing legal organization, that Title IX does not protect people who face retaliation for reporting gender discrimination. The Supreme Court later rejected that position.
Ralph Erickson, 58, was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in September. As a district judge in 2016, he was one of two judges in the country who ordered the federal government not to enforce health care nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.
These are just judges that have been confirmed. Nominees in the queue include Leonard Grasz, Trump’s pick for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. Grasz, 56, proposed amending the Omaha City Charter in 2013 to let employers discriminate against LGBTQ people. He has also compared the “personhood” of fetuses to the civil rights of Native Americans and African-Americans, according to an exhaustive report issued by the Alliance for Justice, a left-leaning advocacy group that focuses on the federal judiciary.
Trump’s effort to shift the federal bench to the right isn’t just aimed at district and circuit courts. He nominated Damien Schiff, a 37-year-old attorney, to a 15-year gig on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Schiff has criticized efforts to prevent bullying of LGBTQ students, referring to messages of equality as “teaching ‘gayness’ in schools.” He also argued that states should be allowed to criminalize “consensual sodomy.”
Part of the reason the White House has been able to nominate so many judges, so quickly, is because it’s been focused on filling court vacancies in states represented by two Republican senators. It’s easier for Trump’s team to work with Republicans in picking nominees, and then in moving them forward in committee, where it takes both home-state senators turning in a “blue slip” to get the hearing process going.
Trump has been less successful in confirming nominees, though. That’s partly because in the mad rush to fill courts seats, the White House isn’t reviewing nominees’ records as thoroughly as, say, the Obama administration did. That means more controversial nominees and more scrutiny. Democrats aren’t exactly eager to cooperate, either, given the way Republicans treated Obama’s judicial nominees (remember Merrick Garland?).
But as Trump plows through judicial nominations that will be a part of his legacy for decades, the only thing Democrats can do while they’re in the minority, for the most part, is make noise.
If they want real change, says Tobias, “Democrats need to win elections.”
Homophobe Jeff Sessions’s time as Attorney General won’t extend beyond the Trump Administration, if that long. However, the damage he has done to the U.S. legal system, our Constitution, the Department of Justice, and LGBTQ Americans won’t be easily repaired, if ever.
But, life tenured Federal Judges are an even bigger problem. These “robed bigots” will be inflicting cruel, discriminatory, and degrading treatment on the U.S. LGBTQ Community from their benches for decades to come.
In the end, Professor Tobias is entirely correct:“Democrats need to win elections.” Otherwise, our LGBT family, colleagues, friends, and neighbors are going to continue to be targets for homophobic Federal Judges and GOP politicos for many decades.
“Oct 5 3d Cir. Rebukes BIA for Troubling, Erroneous Overreach
Alimbaev v. Att’y Gen. of U.S., No. 16-4313 (3d Cir. Sept. 25, 2017) opens with unusual language: “This disconcerting case, before our court for the second time, has a lengthy procedural history marked by confiict between the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and the Immigration Judge (IJ)…” The court observed that the case involved “troubling allegations that the Petitioner…relished watching terroristic videos, while apparently harboring anti-American sympathies.” But the court noted that the question before it was whether the BIA applied the correct legal standard for reviewing the IJ’s factual findings, which the court found necessary for “preserving the rule of law, safeguarding the impartiality of our adjudicatory processes, and ensuring that fairness and objectivity are not usurped by emotion, regardless of the nature of the allegations.”
There is some history behind the correct legal standard mentioned by the circuit court. Prior to 2002, the BIA could review factual findings de novo, meaning it could substitute its own judgment as to whether the respondent was truthful or not for that of the immigration judge. In 2002, then attorney general John Ashcroft enacted procedural reforms which limited the scope of the Board’s review of factual findings to “clear error.” The new review standard meant that even if the Board strongly disagreed with the immigration judge’s fact finding, it could only reverse if it was left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake had been made. The stated reason for the change was that the overwhelming majority of immigration decisions were correct. The actual motive for the change was more likely that the Board was seen as too liberal by Ashcroft; the new standard would therefore make it more difficult for the Board to reverse deportation orders based on the immigration judges’ finding that the respondent lacked credibility.
The following year, Ashcroft purged the Board of all of its more liberal members. The resulting conservative lean has not been offset by subsequent appointments, in spite of the fact that several of those appointments were made under the Obama administration. The Board regularly uses boilerplate language to affirm adverse credibility findings on the grounds that they do not meet the “clearly erroneous” standard. Furthermore, 2005 legislation provided immigration judges with a broader range of bases for credibility determinations, which again made it more difficult for the Board and the circuit courts to reverse on credibility grounds.
The provisions safeguarding an IJ’s credibility finding should apply equally to cases in which relief was granted, making it difficult for a conservative panel of the Board to reverse a grant of relief where the IJ found the respondent credible. Alimbaev was decided by an outstanding immigration judge, who rendered a fair, detailed, thoughtfully considered decision. Factoring in the REAL ID Act standards and the limited scope of review allowed, the Board should have affirmed the IJ’s decision, even if its members would have reached a different factual finding themselves. Instead, the Board panel ignored all of the above to wrongly reverse the IJ not once but three times.
The immigration judge heard the case twice, granting the respondent’s applications for relief each time. In his second decision, the IJ found the respondent’s testimony to be “candid, internally consistent, generally believable, and sufficiently detailed.” In reversing, the BIA turned to nitpicking, citing two small inconsistencies that the Third Circuit termed so “insignificant…that they would probably not, standing alone, justify an IJ making a general adverse credibility finding, much less justify the BIA in rejecting a positive credibility finding under a clear error standard.” The Court therefore concluded that the BIA substituted its own view for the permissible view of the IJ, which is exactly what the “clear error” standard of review is meant to prevent.
The Board cited two other dubious reasons for reversing. One, which the circuit court described as “also troubling,” involved a false insinuation by the Board that a computer containing evidence corroborating the claim that the respondent had viewed “terrorist activity” was found in his residence. In fact, the evidence established that the computer in question was not the respondents, but one located in a communal area of an apartment in which the respondent lived; according to the record, the respondent used the communal computer only on occasion to watch the news. In a footnote, the court noted that none of the videos found on the communal computer were training materials; several originated from the recognized news source Al Jazeera, and “that on the whole, the computer did not produce any direct or causal link suggesting that [they] espoused violence, such as email messages of a questionable nature.” The circuit court therefore remanded the record back to the BIA, with clear instructions to reconsider the discretionary factors “with due deference to the IJ’s factfinding before weighing the various positive and negative factors…”
The question remains as to why the BIA got this so wrong. One possibility is that as the case involved allegations that the respondent might have harbored terrorist sympathies, the Board members let emotion and prejudice take over (apparently three separate times, over a period of several years). If that’s the case, it demonstrates that 15 years after the Ashcroft purge, the one-sided composition of the Board’s members (with no more liberal viewpoints to provide balance) has resulted in a lack of objectivity and impartiality in its decision making. Unfortunately, the appointment of more diverse Board members seems extremely unlikely to happen under the present administration.
But I believe there is another possibility as well. 15 years later, the Board remains very cognizant of the purge and its causes. It is plausible that the Board made a determination that as a matter of self-preservation, it is preferable to be legally wrong than to be perceived as being “soft on terrorism.” If that is the case, there is no stronger argument of the need for an independent immigration court that would not be subject to the type of political pressures that would impact impartiality and fairness.
It also bears mention that unlike the Board, the immigration judge in this case faced the same pressures, yet did not let them prevent him from issuing an impartial, fair, and ultimately correct decision (in spite of having his first decision vacated and remanded by the Board). Unlike the BIA, whose members review decisions that have been drafted for them in a suburban office tower, immigration judges are on the front lines, addressing crippling case loads, being sent on short notice to remote border locations, and dealing with DHS attorneys who now, on orders from Washington, cannot exercise prosecutorial discretion, must raise unnecessary objections, reserve appeal on grants of relief, and oppose termination in deserving cases. Yet many of these judges continue to issue their decisions with impartiality and fairness. Their higher-ups in the Department of Justice should learn from their performance the true meaning of the “rule of law.”
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.”
TIME TO END THE “CHARADE OF QUASI-JUDICIAL INDEPENDENCE” AT THE BIA (With Credit to Peter Levinson)
By Paul Wickham Schmidt
United States Immigration Judge (Retired)
The “grand experiment” of trying to have the BIA operate as an independent appellate court along the lines of a U.S. Court of Appeals ended with the advent of the Bush II Administration in 2001 and Ashcroft’s not too subtle suggestion that he wanted me out as BIA Chairman (presumably, the ”implied threat” was to transfer me to an SES “Hallwalker” position elsewhere in the DOJ if I didn’t cooperate. I cooperated and became a Board Member until he bounced me out of that job in 2003).
Since then, and particularly since the “final purge” in 2003, the BIA has operated as a “captive court” exhibiting a keen awareness of the “political climate” at the DOJ. Don’t rock the boat, avoid dissent, don’t focus too much on fairness or due process for immigrants, particularly if it might cause controversy, interfere with Administration Enforcement programs, or show up in a published precedent.
I agree with everything Jeffrey says. It’s totally demoralizing for U.S. Immigration Judges who are willing to “do the right thing” and stand up for due process and fairness for respondents when the BIA comes back with a disingenuous reversal, sometimes using canned language that doesn’t even have much to do with the actual case.
You should have seen the reaction of some of our former Judicial Law Clerks in Arlington (a bright bunch, without exception, who hadn’t been steeped in the “EOIR mystique”) when a specious reversal of an asylum, withholding, or CAT grant came back from the BIA, often “blowing away” a meticulously detailed well-analyzed written grant with shallow platitudes. One of them told me that once you figured out what panel it had gone to, you could pretty much predict the result. It had more to do with the personal philosophies of the Appellate Judges than it did with the law or due process or even the actual facts of the case. And, of course, nobody was left on the BIA to dissent.
And, as I have pointed out before, both the Bush and Obama Administrations went to great lengths to insure that no “boat rockers,” “independent thinkers” or “outside experts” were appointed to appellate judgeships at the BIA for the past 17 years. Just another obvious reason why the promise of impartiality, fairness, and due process from the U.S. Immigration Courts has been abandoned and replaced with a “mission oriented” emphasis on fulfilling Administration Enforcement objectives. In other words, insuring that a party in interest, the DHS, won’t have its credibility or policies unduly hampered by a truly independent Board and that the Office of Immigration Litigation will get the positions that it wants to defend in the Circuit Courts.
When is the last time you saw the BIA prefer the respondent’s interpretation to the DHS’s in interpreting an allegedly “ambiguous” statutory provision under the Chevron doctrine? Even in cases where the respondent invokes “heavy duty assistance” on its side, like for example the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in an asylum case, the BIA basically “blows them off” without meaningful consideration and finds the DHS position to be the “most reasonable.” For one of the most egregious examples in modern BIA history, see the insulting “short shrift” that the BIA gave to the well-articulated views of the UNHCR (who also had some Circuit Court law on its side) in Matter of M-E-V-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 207, 248-49 (BIA 2014) (“We believe that our interpretation in Matter of S-E-G- and Matter of E-A-G-, as clarified, more accurately captures the concepts underlying the United States’ obligations under the Protocol and will ensure greater consistency in the interpretation of asylum claims under the Act.”)
The whole Chevron/Brand X concept is a joke, particularly as applied to the BIA. It’s high time for the Supremes to abandon it (something in which Justice Gorsuch showed some interest when he was on the 10th Circuit). If we’re going to have a politicized interpretation, better have it be from life-tenured, Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed Article III Judges, who notwithstanding politics actually possess decisional independence, than from an administrative judge who is an employee of the Attorney General (as the DOJ always likes to remind Immigration Judges).
It’s also a powerful argument why the current “expensive charade” of an independent Immigration Court needs to be replaced by a truly independent Article I Court. Until that happens, the Article III Courts will be faced with more and more “life or death” decisions based on the prevailing political winds and institutional preservation rather than on Due Process and the rule of law.
NO MORE BUREAUCRATIC BS – AMERICA NEEDS AN INDEPENDENT ARTICLE I IMMIGRATION COURT NOW
A RESPONSE TO THE DOJ’S ATTEMPT TO “COVER UP” THE SCANDALOUS, SELF-CREATED, DUE-PROCESS DENYING IMMIGRATION COURT BACKLOG EXPOSED BY NBC 4 DC’S I-TEAM
By Paul Wickham Schmidt
United States Immigration Judge (Retired
Let’s look at a few pieces of the EOIR “response” to the I-Team’s Recent Expose. You can read that full exercise in bureaucratese in a separate blog right here: http://wp.me/p8eeJm-1tn
First, the EOIR bureaucracy has no coherent plan to address the backlog that now has risen to more than 628,000 pending cases (even more than at the time Jodie interviewed me) notwithstanding more U.S. Immigration Judges on board! The agency is “studying” the matter. Usually that means that politicos at the DOJ are looking for ways to further truncate Due Process and fairness for respondents in the Immigration Courts.
“Studying” the matter. Oh, please! Let’s look at the most glaring failure highlighted by Jodie, the failure to have even a rudimentary e-filing system. Back in 2001, a group of us, including computer wonks, field personnel, and Senior Executives were assigned to an e-filing project. We submitted a detailed report, complete with plans for a pilot program to the EOIR Executive Group, where it promptly was buried. More than 15 year later, and following several more waste of time studies, there still is no e-filing system in the U.S. Immigration Courts! Not even a viable pilot program! In the meantime, almost every other court system in America has implemented e-filing. For heaven’s sake, even the local courts in Wisconsin have e-filing capability!
This is a blatant misrepresentation of what caused the real problem and a grotesque failure to accept responsibility! The current crisis has little, if anything, to do with Immigration Judge productivity (at an average of 750 completions per judge, U.S. Immigration Judges are already working 50% above the recommended maximum level for their positions — if anything, as shown by some of the recent gross errors exposed by U.S. Circuit Courts, both the Immigration Judges and the BIA Judges should be slowing down to get things right — “haste makes waste”).
No the real problem here is quite simple: bureaucrats at EOIR, the politicos at DOJ, and Congress. Let’s start with Congress. While Congress has belatedly provided some extra positions and funding for the Immigration Courts, for years Congress has been responsible for overfunding DHS enforcement while underfunding the Immigration Court system.
Moreover, the idiotic Government shutdown during the Obama Administration hurt immeasurably. During at least one such shutdown, the vast majority of Immigration Judges, those assigned to the non-detained dockets, were determined by the DOJ to be “nonessential,” sent home on “furlough,” and our dockets were cancelled. When we finally returned to court, there was docket chaos. The system really never has recovered from that man-made disaster. Moreover, both Congress’s failure to fund and DOJ’s idiotic designation of us as “nonessential” sent strong messages that the entire Immigration Court is a “who cares” operation from both a Congressional and an Administration standpoint. And mindless hiring freezes resulting from incompetence in Congress and the Executive Branch didn’t help either.
Then, years of “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” at the behest of DOJ politicos carrying out improper enforcement initiatives through the courts turned chaos into absolute bedlam! Senior Immigration Judges were reassigned from “Merits Dockets” to “meet and greets” for Unaccompanied Minors who really belonged before the DHS Asylum Office. Other judges were taken off of “ready for trial” merits dockets and assigned to hear cases of recently arrived “Adults With Children,” many of whom had not received sufficient time to find lawyers and whose cases were often “Not Quite Ready For Prime Time.” Judges were detailed from full “home” dockets to the Southern Border where they often weren’t needed or didn’t have enough work to keep busy. Then, the Trump Administration took judges off of Merits Dockets that had been pending for years and reassigned them to obscure detention courts, where they often were not fully occupied or were taking over dockets from other judges who were left with nothing to do.
The DOJ/EOIR bureaucracy long ago deprived sitting Immigration Judges of any meaningful control over their local dockets. To now insinuate that Immigration Judge “productivity” or “continuances granted by local Immigration Judges” are significant causes of the problem is an outrageous attempt to cover up the sad truth. Additionally, over the past four Administrations, the DOJ has refused to implement Congress’s statutory grant of contempt authority to U.S. Immigration Judges. This deprives Immigration Judges of even the most rudimentary tools possessed by judges of comparable authority for maintaining order and control of their courts.
Then there are continuances. As Hon. Jeffrey Chase and I have both pointed out in our separate blogs, the attempt to blame judges and overwhelmed private counsel, particularly those serving for NGSs or pro bono, for requesting too many continuances is totally bogus.The majority of the lengthy continuances in Immigration Court are the result of Aimless Docket Reshuffling imposed by the politicos at DOJ and carried out by compliant administrators at EOIR who have lost sight of their due process mission but not of the need to save their jobs by cooperating with the politicos.
As Jodie pointed out, there are lots of folks out there, many with potentially winning cases, who are ready and would like their “day in court.” But, the system is too busy shuffling things around to satisfy the President’s Executive Orders and trying to fulfill the Attorney General’s enforcement priorities to deliver justice in a reasonable, predictable, and orderly manner.
The private bar and NGO attorneys, many of whom serve pro bono or low bono, are the unsung heroes of this system. They are the only reason the system hasn’t completely collapsed yet! Their intentional mistreatment and the disrespect showered on them by spineless bureaucrats at EOIR and the cowardly politicos at DOJ is nothing short of a national disgrace!
Then, let’s take a closer look at the DOJ/EOIR hiring fiasco! According to a recent GAO study recommending improvements at the Immigration Courts, Immigration Judge hiring has taken an astounding average of two years! That’s longer than it takes for a Senate-confirmed political appointment or than it took the Roosevelt Administration to build the Pentagon during the New Deal! But, the results of this glacial, “Rube-Goldberg” process are disturbingly predictable and pedestrian. Nearly 90% of the Immigration Judges hired over this and the past Administration came from prosecutorial or other government backgrounds. With due respect, one could probably have produced similar results by “blind drawing” applications from senior government attorneys from a box. Neither EOIR nor DOJ has put forth an efficient, transparent, merit-based program to replace this mess, although many worthy models exist — such as the merit hiring procedures for U.S. Bankruptcy Judges and Magistrates which usually involve widespread input from leading practitioners in the areas they will be serving.
Notwithstanding the current “crisis,” EOIR and DOJ are sitting on an Immigration Judge vacancy rate of 15%! There are currently 55 judicial vacancies! EOIR was only able to hire and bring on 64 new Immigration Judges during the entire past year. That will barely be enough to fill the currently vacant positions and any retirements or other departures. So, the idea that a DOJ plan to budget for more judges is going to solve this crisis any time in the foreseeable future is nonsense.
Let’s take a quick look at the numbers in the DOJ “never-never land.” They project 449 Immigration Judges by the end of FY 2018, which is September 30, 2018, one year from now. Let’s also assume the highly unlikely: that Congress grants the request, the money is appropriated, additional courtrooms are built, additional staff is hired, all the judicial positions are filled, and the additional Immigration Judges are all on board and up to speed by September 30, 2018.
449 Immigration Judges could at most, complete approximately 337,000 cases without impeding due process. Therefore, using the DOJ’s own figures, and giving the most optimistic outlook possible, it would take nearly two years, practically to the end of this Administration, just to complete all of the cases currently on docket if no additional cases were filed! The idea that 449 Immigration Judges could do that plus handle incoming cases without creating a new backlog is facially absurd. DOJ’s own numbers refute it. What is clear is that neither the politicos at DOJ nor the bureaucrats at EOIR have any idea of how to actually solve the backlog problem and reestablish order in the Immigration Courts.
So, what really needs to be done!
First and foremost, we need an independent U.S. Immigration Court outside the DOJ.And that means a return to Due Process as the sole function and guiding light of the Immigration Court just like it is for all other independent courts. DHS Enforcement priorities should be considered and accommodated where possible without compromising due process. But, they are just one of many factors that go into running an efficient due process court system. DHS Enforcement should not be “driving the train.”
Given that approximately half of the individuals now in Immigration Court appear to be entitled to some form of relief, independent U.S. Immigration Judges could develop ways to force the DHS to identify these cases and either resolve them outside of court or move them up to “short dockets” for quick resolutions based largely on stipulations and focused testimony or legal arguments.
Moreover, I know from hard experience that even though independent Article III judges were technically not supposed to review “prosecutorial discretion“ they had many creative ways to basically tell the INS (now DHS) to get certain low priority or extreme humanitarian cases off the docket — or else. The current Administration’s abusive removal of prosecutorial discretion from local DHS prosecutors is a major contributing factor in the current docket mess. An independent court would be able to stand up to this kind of nonsense, rather than “going along to get along.” No court system in American operates without a heavy dose of PD from the prosecutors.
Additionally, implementation of contempt authority, extending to both private attorneys and Government prosecutors, would give Immigration Judges real clout in stopping abuses of the court’s docket and moving cases along in a failure and reasonable manner.
Second, the EOIR bureaucracy needs to be replaced with a real court structure patterned on other Federal Courts. I’d hazard to say that no other functioning court system in America has as Byzantine and as bloated a bureaucracy as EOIR. Far too many of the positions and resources are in “Headquarters” in Falls Church rather than in the local courts where they belong. Docket control needs to be returned to sitting Immigration Judges who are in the best position to work with the local bar, pro bono providers, the DHS Office of Chief Counsel, and the Court Administrator to establish the most efficient and fair ways of scheduling cases and moving along dockets given local conditions and limitations.
And “Job One” at the local Immigration Court level should be to work with all parties to insure that Immigration Court cases are docketed and scheduled in a manner that insures, to the maximum extent humanly possible, that no individual who wants a lawyer is required to appear without one. Representation by competent counsel is the single most important ingredient of achieving due process in the U.S. Immigration Courts.
Third, the U.S. Immigration Courts need a new professional Administrative Office patterned on the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts and responsible to a Judicial Council, not politicos at the DOJ. Courtroom planning, technology, security, files management, training, planning for the future, and hiring are all not up to professional court management standards in the current system. In particular, the outdated, often unreliable technology and inadequate space are glaring issues in a high volume system like the Immigration Courts.
Also, the current judicial selection system is a bad joke. It is neither transparent nor timely, and it totally lacks credibility in the “real world” of immigration practice. The Immigration Courts need a non-partisan, merit-based, efficient hiring system that gives local practitioners and judges as well as government counsel some meaningful input while producing results in a timely fashion. There are many merit-based models out there like those for hiring U.S. Bankruptcy Judges, U.S. Magistrates, and Judges for the Superior Court of DC.
Fourth, the system needs an Appellate Court that acts like an independent appellate court not a service center catering to the politicos at the DOJ. The current BIA’s lack of diverse backgrounds among its Appellate Immigration Judges and glaring lack of Immigration Court or asylum expertise has resulted in a weak body of asylum law and insufficient control over wayward judges who are unwilling to grant relief in appropriate situations. There are many asylum cases out there in the backlog that should and could be rapidly granted. Moreover, many of them probably should have been granted at the DHS Asylum Office. The current Board has failed to take appropriate corrective action in those courts where hostility to or misinterpretation of laws favorable to respondents has resulted in indefensibly low rates of granting relief. This, in turn, encourages the DHS to keep cases on the court docket that properly should be settled out of court, returned to the Asylum Office, or sent to the USCIS.
The current Board “is what it is,” It can’t really help itself, as a result of questionable choices outside of its control made by the politicos at the DOJ over several Administrations. I’m not suggesting that current BIA Judges should not be “grandfathered” into an independent Appellate Division of the Immigration Court. But future Appellate Judge appointments should be strictly merit-based and should be focused on recognizing proven expertise and fairness in applying asylum laws and expertise gained in activities beyond just government service, particularly those in clinical academic practices or serving the pro bono community through NGOs.
Fifth, and finally, the U.S. Immigration Courts need e-filing now! The time for “study” is long over! Existing systems in other courts can be tailored for U.S. Immigration Court use. It’s no longer “rocket science.” It’s “Basic Professional Court Management 101.” It’s time for action, not more studies, unfulfilled promises, and bureaucratic smokescreens! If nothing else, the failure of the DOJ over a number of Administrations to accomplish this very basic ministerial task demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt its incompetence and inability to administer the U.S. Immigration Courts in anything approaching a minimally professional manner.
Yup, I’ve set forth an ambitious agenda. But, unlike the “DOJ/EOIR BS,” it’s based on real life experience and decades of observation at all levels inside and outside this broken system. If Congress and the Administration can’t get their collective acts together and establish an Independent Article Immigration Court now, there will be a “lock-up” point at which almost everything will stop functioning. There is no way that the current EOIR technology and inadequate planning can keep on absorbing even more cases and even more positions.
And if, as I predict, rather than doing the right thing, this Administration responds with mindless hurry up denials of due process, the cases will start piling up in the Article III Courts and being returned to the Immigration Courts for “do-overs” in droves. I’ve actually seen it happen before in the Bush Administration. But, this is much worse because there are many more cases and this Administration is even more clueless about how to deal with immigration enforcement and the Immigration Court system. In the end, it’s the folks who depend on the Immigration Court system for justice and the overall concept of our courts being able to deliver even-handed justice in a fair and reasonable manner that will be hurt. And, folks, that’s going to affect all of us at some point in the future.
Don’t accept more ridiculous shameful bureaucratic, “do nothing” BS from the DOJ! It’s time to hold DOJ and EOIR fully accountable for their failure to provide basic Due Process in the U.S. Immigration Courts and for Congress to accept their fair share of the blame!
Tell your Senators and Representatives that you’ve had enough of this nonsense and gross waste and mismanagement of government resources! Fixing the U.S. Immigration Courts now must be one of our highest national priorities! Those who would continue to sweep this problem under the rug deserve to be voted out of office! No more BS and excuses; Article I now! Due Process Now!
Other than the above, of course, I think the current system is great!
“U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review Responses to I-Team Immigration Backlog Report
What steps have been taken by DOJ/EOIR to combat the backlog?
EOIR is committed to a multi-level strategy to maximize our adjudicatory capacity, including the hiring of more judges, working with our federal partners to make the immigration process more efficient, and the increased use of video-teleconference capabilities. EOIR is undertaking a broad, agency-wide effort to review and reform its internal practices, procedures, and technology in order to enhance immigration judge productivity and ensure that cases are adjudicated in a fair and timely manner across all of the agency’s courts. EOIR records show that through the end of August 2017, the immigration courts had 628,698 pending cases. Although multiple factors may have contributed to this caseload, immigration judges must ensure that lower productivity and adjudicatory inefficiency do not further exacerbate this situation. To this end, EOIR recently issued Operating Policies and Procedures Memorandum 17-01: Continuances (available at https://www.justice.gov/eoir/oppm-log), which provides guidance on the fair and efficient handling of motions for continuance.
How many immigration judges have retired and how many have been sworn in the last two years?
The number of immigration judges who retired or separated during each of the following fiscal years (FY) is as follows: FY 2016, 13, and FY 2017 (through Sept. 15, 2017) 21. EOIR hired 56 immigration judges during FY 2016, and 64 immigration judges during FY 2017 (through Sept. 15, 2017).
How many open positions are there currently for immigration judges?
There are currently 329 immigration judges nationwide, out of EOIR’s current authorized level of 384.
Judge Marks discussed how she thinks the number of immigration judges should be doubled. Is there a goal by EOIR on how many new judges to hire?
As noted in EOIR’s FY 2018 budget request (available here: https://www.justice.gov/jmd/page/file/968566/download), the largest challenge facing the immigration courts is the growing pending caseload. The agency’s FY 2018 budget strategy is a sustained focus on increasing adjudicative capacity in order to meet EOIR’s mission to adjudicate immigration cases by fairly, expeditiously, and uniformly interpreting and administering the nation’s immigration laws.
To implement EOIR’s strategy, EOIR’s FY 2018 budget request includes a requested increase in immigration judge teams (each team consists of one immigration judge and five support staff) that would increase EOIR’s immigration judge corps to 449 and provide 225 additional full-time employees for mission support.”
Published at 5:45 AM EDT on Sep 25, 2017 | Updated at 6:43 PM EDT on Sep 22, 2017
No guys, I’m sorry! Much as I love you, and much as I realize that it was was a bunch of meddling politicos and out of touch bureaucrats, with lots of help from a willfully blind Congress, that created these problems over the past 15 years, it’s going to take more than politicos at the DOJ and bureaucrats in Falls Church to solve it.
Committing “to a multi-level strategy to maximize our adjudicatory capacity,” whatever that primo piece of bureaucratic gobbledygook might mean in plain English, isn’t going to cut it. Nor is just throwing more judges and more money at it going to do the trick.
And the answer certainly isn’t more truncation of due process and typical bureaucratic “haste makes waste bogus efficiencies and streamlining” which actually wastes massive amounts of time and money while not getting the job done. The courts are already in a due process crisis. “Speeding up the assembly line” or setting bogus production goals is not the answer. However, some “smart court administration” and “smart enforcement” are part of the solution. Sadly, it’s just not within the “skill set” of the group at DOJ and EOIR who are flailing away at court administration.
Nor, frankly, does it appear to be within the expertise of current DHS/ICE management without some Congressional oversight and accountability (things that have been remarkably absent in this Congress). Old saying: Garbage In = Garbage Out, and right now ICE Enforcement, Detention, and Legal Counsel Programs are in “Garbage Truck Mode.” If Congress doesn’t step in, I think the Article III Courts eventually will, if only as an act of self-defense. Nor is evading the Immigration Court system with unconstitutional proposals for expanding “expedited removals” the answer.
The DHS Enforcement System and the Immigration Courts are already squandering resources and wasting the taxpayers money at alarming rates. “Big-time reforms”must precede the injection of massive resources into a totally broken system. And that goes for putting some Congressional brakes on the “gonzo” enforcement now being carried out by DHS, and their mismanagement of the ICE Legal Program, which is a key part of the problem.
Next up: My Response: I take on the DOJ/EOIR Bogus “Strategy” and tell you what really needs to be done to restore due process to a broken court system.
Here’s an updated story from the I-Team on the human costs of the backlog and the mindless policies of the Trump ‘administration that are making things even worse. Includes comments from superstar local practitioner Christina Wilkes, Esq.:
“Deportation rates of undocumented immigrants have ticked up in the federal Immigration Court for the first time in eight years as President Donald Trump starts to make good on his promise to expel millions of people. But even as the Trump administration expands its dragnet, the court is so backlogged that some hearings are being scheduled as far in the future as July 2022.
The long delays come as immigration courtrooms struggle with too few judges, only 334 for a backlog of more than 617,000 cases, and scant resources on par with a traffic court, said Judge Dana Leigh Marks of San Francisco, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Delays are the longest in San Francisco, where the court is setting dates more than four years out. Courts in Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle and Arlington, Virginia are right behind with dates in 2021.
Immigration law is complex and the overloaded judges are making decisions about men and women who may have been tortured or raped, their children abused or forced to witness horrible acts, or who fear they will be killed if they return home.
“I compare the immigration courts to traffic courts and the cases that we hear – they are death penalty cases.”
Judge Dana Leigh Marks
“I compare the immigration courts to traffic courts and the cases that we hear – they are death penalty cases,” said Marks, a judge for 30 years who was speaking in her capacity as association president. “And I literally get chills every time I say that because it’s an incredibly – it’s an overwhelming job.”
The backlog in Immigration Court, which unlike other courts is not independent but part of the U.S. Justice Department, has been growing for nearly a decade, up from about 224,000 cases in fiscal year 2009. The average number of days to complete a deportation case has risen from 234 in 2009 to a projected 525 this year.
A couple in Immigration Court in New York City for the first time on Sept. 21 came to the United States to escape violence in Ecuador, they said, overstaying a visa as they applied to remain permanently in 2013. They were expecting to finally to explain their circumstances to a judge, but instead they were out the door in less than five minutes with a return date in 2020.
“I don’t even know, how do I feel,” said the woman, who did not want to give her name. “I feel frustrated.”
The logjam began during the Obama administration as President Barack Obama boosted immigration enforcement while a divided Congress cut spending. The Justice Department saw a three-year hiring freeze from 2011 to 2013, which then became even worse when tens of thousands of women and children came across the border escaping violence in Central America.
“I don’t even know, how do I feel,” said the woman, who did not want to give her name. “I feel frustrated.
“The problem was years in the making but this administration is making it much, much worse,” said Jeremy McKinney of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Obama was famously called the “deporter-in-chief” after he not only targeted immigrants with criminal records for deportation but also instituted formal removal proceedings for an increased number of unauthorized border crossers, according to a January study by the Migration Policy Institute. At the same time, fewer people were crossing the border because of a better economy in Mexico and fewer jobs in the U.S. after the recession.
The focus on criminals — whose hearings, when they were detained, were either short or waived — resulted in quick deportations, McKinney said. The Trump administration is targeting a much broader group and includes people who might be eligible to stay and that puts more strain on the courts, McKinney said.
“They will arrest anyone that has a pulse and that they suspect is in the United States without permission regardless of if that person poses a risk to our community,” he said.
To clear the backlog, the Trump administration has proposed hiring 75 new Immigration Court judges plus staff, a number the House has reduced to 65, and it has considered expanding the use of deportations without court approval. In the meantime it has moved some judges closer the border temporarily, but that leaves behind even greater backlogs in their home courts.
But the job of an immigration judge is difficult and those in the courts warn that hires are not keeping up with departures. Long background checks dissuade many except for attorneys already working for the government from applying, they say.
The government is trying to quicken the process by resisting delays it formerly acceded to, McKinney said. For example, he said, government lawyers are now opposing a temporary halt to deportation cases to allow an immigrant who might be eligible to remain in the United States to take the steps that are necessary.
“So you’ve got people that are eligible for green cards but are not able to pursue it because suddenly the government is opposing the motion to close those cases,” he said.
And it is also reopening cases that were closed during the previous administration, a move that could add to the delays, McKinney said.
“They’re taking old cases and dumping those into current dockets that are already overflowing,” he said. “These individuals are ones that were previously determined that they were not priorities for deportation.”
One consequence of the logjam until recently had been that judges were deporting fewer immigrants. Last year, just 43 percent of all cases ended with a deportation removal, down from 72 percent in 2007.
That downward trend is beginning to reverse this year. The deportation rate rose slightly over the first 10 months of the 2017 fiscal year, to 55 percent, from 43 percent for all of the previous fiscal year. Among immigrants in detention, the deportation rate rose to 72.3 percent.
The outcome of a case can depend on the location of a court. Georgia has deported the vast majority of immigrants in court this year, New York ousted less than a third. Houston has expelled 87 percent of the immigrants, while Phoenix is at the low end with 20 percent.
You appear to be in Virginia. Not your state?
In Virginia, 56.0% of immigrants who go to court are deported.
See the rates of deportation in state immigration courts across the country:
Fiscal year 2017 (October through July); Source: TRAC
WHO ARE THESE IMMIGRANTS?
More than half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Mexico but their number has declined by about 1 million since 2007. They have been replaced by those fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, plus immigrants from elsewhere. They live mostly in California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey though the state with the highest percentage of undocumented immigrants is Nevada.
Nearly 60 percent arrived in the U.S. before 2000 and a third have been here for more than 20 years. Eight million of the 11 million have jobs. They make up 5 percent of the country’s labor force, mostly in agriculture, construction and the hospitality industry. They are much younger and somewhat more male than the population as a whole.
The long delays in Immigration Court are jeopardizing some immigrants’ chances. They risk losing touch with witnesses they will need or the death of relatives who would enable them to stay. They may have children back in their home country who are in danger. And although they are entitled to lawyers, they must pay for them.
“And so it is very frustrating and stressful frankly for the litigants in our courts to be in that limbo position for such a long period of time,” Marks said.
The couple who fled violence in Ecuador has built a new life in the U.S. She is now a teacher, he works with hazardous materials and they have three American-born children. With no resolution of their case, they remain in that limbo.
“We’re stuck here,” she said.
Christina Wilkes, an immigration lawyer at Grossman Law in Rockville, Maryland, is representing a mother, identified as Z.A., who arrived with her daughter and son from El Salvador in 2014 after a gang tried to recruit the daughter.
In Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia the number of cases has more than tripled in past five years, with some cases taking more than four years to be heard.
The daughter’s application for permanent residency has been pending since the beginning of the year when a judge granted her asylum, Wilkes said. But the mother still does not have a date for a judge to hear her asylum case, though the facts for both are nearly identical.
“For her, where her likelihood of success is relatively high, it’s really frustrating because she wants a resolution,” Wilkes said.
Andres, whose last name NBC is witholding, left Guatemala in August 2014, because he was discriminated against there, he said. He speaks Mam, a Mayan language, and dressed in traditional clothing, both of which made him a target.
“Because I’m indigenous, that’s why they discriminated against me,” he said. “A policeman would beat me, and we don’t have any rights because they rule. The Spanish speakers are the ones who rule all parts of the country.”
He has a work permit, he said, and is employed in construction. But he has twice had his asylum hearing postponed in Immigration Court in San Francisco and says he is scared that as he waits for his new date in January he will detained and deported.
Those waiting to have their asylum cases heard find the reality that there currently aren’t enough judges and staff to handle the demand leaving some applicants forced to wait for years while their witnesses and key evidence disappear.
“Because that is happening where I live in Oakland,” he said.
Shouan Riahi, an attorney with the non-profit Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn, New York, said that the delays are causing particular problems for those seeking asylum. If a court date is set years in the future, they might not think it’s important to meet with a lawyer immediately or know they face a one-year deadline for asylum applications.
“So that creates a whole host of issues because a lot of people that are applying for asylum now are people who didn’t have their hearing scheduled within a year,” he said. “And never went to see an attorney because why would you if your case is in 2019 and now their cases are being denied because they haven’t filed for asylum within a year.”
Some judges are counting the delays as an exceptional circumstance and are accepting the applications as filed on time, but others are turning immigrants away. Riahi’s office is appealing those cases and he expects some to end up in federal circuit court.
Other who are getting caught up in the delays are children who have been neglected, abused or abandoned and are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status. In some courts they are being deported before they receive their visas, he said.
Paul Wickham Schmidt, a retired immigration judge who served in Arlington, Virginia, for 13 years, said that the delays do not serve due process or justice.
“It’s not fair either way,” he said. “It’s not fair to keep people with good claims waiting, but it’s not really fair that if people have no claim their cases sort of aimlessly get shuffled off also. That leads to loss of credibility for the system.”
ABOUT THE DATA
These stories are based on enforcement, budget and demographic data from the federal government and nonprofit groups.
Our primary source for information on operations of the Immigration Court was the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. TRAC, a nonprofit at Syracuse University, has collected and organized data from federal law enforcement agencies for decades and makes that data available to the public. Its website is trac.syr.edu. TRAC is funded by grants and subscription fees; NBC subscribed to TRAC during this project.
Information about the size and demographics of the undocumented immigrant population came from two primary sources: the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Both groups use a roughly similar technique, the residual method, to estimate the undocumented population, and reach similar estimates of its size. For a brief description of the residual method, go here.
Some of the best information on the immigrant population as a whole as well as historic perspective on immigration enforcement comes from the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. It is available here. The most recent year for which statistics are available is 2015, though 2016 statistics should be provided shortly.”
People who shouldn’t be here, get to stay for years and build a life while they wait. And those who do legally deserve to stay may have family in danger back home, while their cases face delay after delay.
The News4 I-Team spent months working with NBC investigative teams across the country to examine our nation’s immigration case backlog.
In Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia the number of cases has more than tripled in past five years, with some cases taking more than four years to be heard.
“The quality of their lives are deeply affected by whether or not they’re allowed to stay,” said National Association of Immigration Judges President Dana Leigh Marks, adding that the decisions are incredibly tough.
“They came here when they were little. They know better this country than where they were born,” Claros said.
Their parents and sister are all in Maryland and equally worried about the current state of the U.S. immigration system.
“What they’re doing right now for me is, you know, it’s devastating,” Claros told the News4 I-Team. “A lot of families have been separated from their loves.”
Three years ago he married a U.S. citizen and filed paperwork to get legal status.
“It’s been kind of hard; it’s been almost a year waiting for an answer,” he said of the delay.
US Immigration by the Numbers
An overview of immigration in the U.S., by the numbers.
(Published Monday, Sept. 25, 2017)
‘It’s a Disaster. I Think It’s Moving Toward Implosion’
The nationwide backlog of immigration cases topped 617,000 this summer. The courts in Arlington and Baltimore handle all of the cases for D.C., Maryland and Virginia — more than 58,000 of them as of July. And that doesn’t even include immigrants who are here illegally and completely undocumented.
The News4 I-Team found a new immigrant walking into the Arlington court today could have to wait until December 2021 for a hearing; that’s the second longest delay in the nation.
“It’s a disaster. I think it’s moving toward implosion,” said Judge Paul Wickham Schmidt, who retired last year from Arlington’s immigration court, after 13 years on the bench.
“We probably had 9 to 10,000 each on our dockets,” said Schmidt. “I think sometimes we minimize the difficulty of having your life on hold.”
He said the system is painfully slow for several reasons, and the first is really basic: The entire system operated on paper. With no way to e-file cases or review briefs or documents online.
“They don’t let you see the inside of an immigration court. If they did, they’d clean it up! But there are files piled all over: They’re in the corridors, they’re all over the desks, they’re under desks,” said Schmidt, who can speak freely since he’s retired.
He said judges have to physically be in their offices to review files, which is especially difficult with a new administration policy that reassigns some judges to hear cases at the border.
That leaves courtrooms empty back in their home court and a full docket of cases that get pushed to the back of the line.
During the delay, witnesses who could help the immigrant’s case might disappear, and attorneys and judges could move or retire, causing more delay.
“The cases that are actually ready to go are being put to the end, and the judges are being assigned to cases of recently arrived individuals, many of whom haven’t had time to get lawyers. So I think it’s a misuse of resources,” said Schmidt.
He said there aren’t enough attorneys to keep the system moving, and having representation significantly impacts someone’s chance of staying.
The new administration has also eliminated prosecutors’ discretion to dismiss or delay thousands of low priority cases: People who haven’t committed a crime or have family members who are citizens.
“There’s only so much judge time,” said Schmidt, “and if you use it for people who are low priorities, then there’s some other person who isn’t getting a hearing.”
He added that with political priorities constantly shifting, judges should have control over which cases to call first.
‘People Are Being Hurt by These Delays’
“Unfortunately despite our best efforts, there are people being hurt by these delays, and they can be avoided if we would get sufficient resources,” said Judge Marks.
She said the court needs twice as many judges to tackle that backlog. But right now, the court’s budget and its management are within the Department of Justice, which is another major issue for the judges association.
“The way to assure stakeholders, the people who come before us, that they are being treated fairly is that we should be taken out of the Department of Justice and made a neutral court system,” said Marks.
She said Congress needs to look at the whole system and take action so the political climate surrounding immigration doesn’t impact whether or when people get their day in court.
“It is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” said Marks. “If you want to have increased focus on the border courts, fine. But build courts, hire judges and put them there before you start that program.”
The Justice Department told the News4 I-Team it’s committed to increasing the number of judges; an additional 65 judge positions are already budgeted for next year.
But that still doesn’t solve the problem of dozens of vacant positions, and sitting judges retiring.
There’s also an agency-wide review already underway which aims to identify ways to increase efficiency, through changes to court procedures and technology.
The DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which manages the court system, says its mission is to fairly, expeditiously and uniformly interpret and administer the nation’s immigration laws.
‘You’re Not Going to Get Every Single One Right’
Like Jonathan Claros, nearly half of all of the immigrants caught in the backlog in our area are from El Salvador — more than 28,760 people. But Judge Schmidt said the courts do not treat all nationalities equally.
“The law is sort of tough on Central American cases. Some of them can make it, some of them don’t,” said Schmidt, “An Ethiopian with an asylum claim, they almost always get granted.”
The court data shows the location also factors into whether an immigrant has a better chance of being able to stay.
The national average is just over 56 percent. Here in the D.C. area, it’s 61 percent. Los Angeles is 70 percent.
“Clearly, the attitudes of the judges and how they feel about asylum law has quite a bit to do with it,” said Schmidt, “If I were an immigrant, I’d rather be in California than Atlanta, Georgia. Any day.”
In one Georgia court, only 13 percent of people are allowed to stay in the U.S.
Schmidt said the appellate boards also lack consistency in their decisions.
“As a result, judges don’t get the guidance they need. The board doesn’t crack down on judges who are way out of line with what the law should be,” he said, adding that immigrants deserve to know their fate sooner.
Our system simply doesn’t allow for that.
Schmidt said with the volume of cases, the gravity of his difficult decisions was often emotional.
“You’re not going to get every single one right, and you think about the lives that you might have destroyed that you could have saved, and of course that weighs on you,” he said.
Jonathan Claros said he still believes in the American dream. He’s just worried his family’s heartache will keep growing while he waits for an answer.
“Everybody’s afraid,” he said. “They go out, but they don’t know if they are going to come back home again. It’s hard to live like that.”
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot and edited by Steve Jones.
Click the above link to see John Yang of PBS interview United States Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks of the U.S. Immigration Court in San Francisco, speaking in her capacity as President of the National Association of Immigration Judges (“NAIJ”).
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a “retiree member” of the NAIJ.
As this interview shows, this problem has been building steadily under the past three Administrations. However, the “gonzo enforcement” policies of the Trump Administration, combined with “ADR” (“Aimless Docket Reschuffling”) caused by poorly planned, and in many cases unneeded, details of Immigration Judges from backlogged “home dockets” to obscure detention centers along the Southern Border in response to Trump’s Executive Orders on enforcement, made worse by constant threats to mindlessly throw DACA individuals and TPS holders into the already overwhelmed system have greatly and unnecessarily aggravated an already bad situation.
Judge Marks points out that nearly 40% of the current U.S. Immigration Judiciary, including all of the most experienced judges, are eligible or nearly eligible to retire. That would mean a whopping 140 new Immigration Judge hires in a short period of time in addition to filling the current approximately 50 vacancies and any other positions that might become available. That adds up to approximately 200 new judicial vacancies, not counting any additional positions that Congress might provide.
No Administration has been able to competently hire that many new judges using a proper merit selection process. Indeed, the last Administration, using a system that could hardly be viewed as ”merit based,” took an astounding average of nearly two years to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Immigration Court! That’s amazing considering that these are administrative judges who do not require Senate confirmation.
The total unsuitability of the U.S. Justice Department to be administering the U.S. Immigration Courts has been demonstrated not only in terns of misuse of the courts for politicized law enforcement objectives, but also in terms of poor planning and stunningly incompetent judicial administration.
We need an independent Article I U.S. Immigration Court, and we need it now!
PANEL: PHILLIPS, McKAY, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.
OPINION BY: Judge McKay
The BIA held that Petitioner had not submitted sufficient evidence to show a change in country conditions, and thus that her motion to reopen was untimely under 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(c)(7)(C). The BIA first held that Petitioner had not submitted sufficient evidence to show that the treatment of Christians in China has worsened since her 2011 immigration hearing. This factual finding is not supported by substantial—or, indeed, any—evidence in the record. The agency provided no rational explanation as to how numerous accounts of a 300 percent increase in the persecution of Christians, “unprecedented violations” of religious freedoms beginning in 2014, and possibly “the most egregious and persistent” wave of persecution against Christians since the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 was insufficient to show that the treatment of Christians in China had worsened since 2011. Nor is there anything in the record that would contradict Petitioner’s extensive evidence of a substantial increase in the government’s mistreatment of Christians since 2011. The BIA pointed to the fact that some portions of the State Department’s 2014 report include substantially similar language to the 2008 and 2009 reports. However, the State Department’s habit of cutting and pasting portions of its old reports into newer reports does nothing to refute all of the other evidence that the level and intensity of persecution against Christians has increased significantly since 2011. Nor does anything in the State Department report suggest that the U.S. Commission and various human-rights organizations are all reporting false data or drawing false conclusions about the deterioration of the treatment of Christians in China. The BIA thus abused its discretion by holding, completely contrary to all of the evidence, that Petitioner had not shown that the treatment of Christians in China has worsened in recent years.
The BIA also suggested that the substantial increase in the persecution of Christians was simply irrelevant because “[a] review of the record before the Immigration Judge indicated that China has long repressed religious freedom, and that underground or unregistered churches continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, harassment, and repression, including breaking up services, fines, detention, beatings, and torture.” (R. at 5.) However, the fact that there was already some level of persecution in China does not prevent Petitioner from showing a change in country conditions due to a significant increase in the level of persecution faced by Christians in her country. To hold otherwise would be to bar reopening for petitioners who file for asylum when they face some, albeit insufficient, risk of persecution in their country, while permitting reopening for petitioners who file for asylum without there being any danger of persecution, then seek reopening after their country fortuitously begins persecuting people who are in their protected category thereafter. But surely Congress did not intend for 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(c)(7)(C) to protect only petitioners who file frivolous asylum applications under no threat of persecution, while extending no help to petitioners who seek reopening after an existing pattern of persecution becomes dramatically worse. The BIA’s reasoning would lead to an absurd result, one we cannot condone.
Instead, we agree with the Second, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits that a significant increase in the level of persecution constitutes a material change in country conditions for purposes of 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(c)(7)(C) and that the BIA abuses its discretion when it fails to assess and consider a petitioner’s evidence that the persecution of others in his protected category has substantially worsened since the initial application. See Paul v. Gonzales, 444 F.3d 148, 157 (2d Cir. 2006) (“Proof that persecution of Christians in Pakistan has become more common, intense, or far-reaching—i.e., the very proof that petitioner purports to have presented in filing his motion to reopen—would clearly bear on this objective inquiry [into the likelihood of future persecution]. Under the circumstances, the BIA’s refusal even to consider such evidence constitutes an abuse of discretion.”); Poradisova v. Gonzales, 420 F.3d 70, 81–82 (2d Cir. 2005) (holding that the BIA abused its discretion in denying a motion to reopen based on worsened country conditions: evidence that the human-rights situation in Belarus is “in an ‘accelerating deterioration’” and “that the situation has worsened since the Poradisovs’ original application” “certainly warranted more than a perfunctory (and clearly inaccurate) mention by the BIA as being ‘merely cumulative’”); Shu Han Liu v. Holder, 718 F.3d 706, 709, 712–13 (7th Cir. 2013) (holding that a petitioner seeking to file an untimely motion to reopen must meet her burden of “show[ing] that Chinese persecution of Christians (of her type) had worsened,” and concluding that the BIA abused its discretion in ignoring evidence that current conditions in China were worse than conditions at the date of the petitioner’s final removal hearing); Chandra v. Holder, 751 F.3d 1034, 1039 (9th Cir. 2014) (“The BIA abused its discretion when it failed to assess Chandra’s evidence that treatment of Christians in Indonesia had deteriorated since his 2002 removal hearing.”); Jiang v. U.S. Attorney Gen., 568 F.3d 1252, 1258 (11th Cir. 2009) (holding that the BIA clearly abused its discretion by overlooking or “inexplicably discount[ing]” evidence of “the recent increased enforcement of the one-child policy” in the petitioner’s province and hometown).
Finally, the BIA rejected Petitioner’s mother’s statement regarding her recent religious persecution in Petitioner’s hometown as both unreliable and irrelevant. The BIA held that the statement was unreliable for two reasons: (1) it was unsworn, and (2) it was prepared for the purposes of litigation. The first of these reasons is incorrect both as a matter of fact and as a matter of law. Petitioner’s mother concluded her statement by expressly swearing to the truth of everything she had stated therein, and thus the BIA’s factual finding that the statement was unsworn is refuted by the record. And even if the BIA were correct in its factual finding, we note that several “[o]ther circuits have admonished the Board for dismissing or according little weight to a statement due to its unsworn nature.” Yu Yun Zhang v. Holder, 702 F.3d 878, 881 (6th Cir. 2012). There is no statutory support for the BIA’s contention that documents at immigration hearings must be sworn, and “numerous courts,” “without so much as pausing to note the unsworn nature of a document, . . . have relied on such documents when considering claims of asylum applicants.” Zuh v. Mukasey, 547 F.3d 504, 509 (4th Cir. 2008). “Moreover,” the Fourth Circuit noted in Zuh, “it seems untenable to require a sworn statement from a person harassed because of a relationship with an asylum applicant and potentially endangered by helping that applicant.” Id.; see also Yu Yun Zhang, 702 F.3d at 881 (“Given the documented persecution of Christians in China, it seems an arbitrarily high threshold to require that letters attesting to government abuse and admitting membership in a persecuted organization be notarized.”).
As for the BIA’s second reason for rejecting the statement as unreliable, the fact that the evidence was prepared while litigation was ongoing is all but inevitable in the context of a motion to reopen, and we hold that the BIA may not entirely dismiss an asylum applicant’s evidence as unreliable based solely on the timing of its creation. Neither the BIA decision nor the government brief cites to a single statute or circuit court decision to support the idea that the timing of a statement’s creation is a dispositive or even permissible factor in evaluating its reliability in an asylum case. Furthermore, we note that the Sixth Circuit has held that it simply “does not matter that [evidence] may have been written for the express purpose of supporting [a petitioner’s] motion to reopen,” citing for support to a Ninth Circuit case which held that the BIA may not “denigrate the credibility” of letters written by the petitioner’s friends based simply on the inference that her friends “‘would tend to write supportive letters.’” Yu Yun Zhang, 702 F.3d at 882 (quoting Zavala-Bonilla v. INS, 730 F.3d 562, 565 (9th Cir. 1984)). We need not resolve this broader question in the case before us today; even if the timing of a statement’s creation might perhaps play some role in determining its credibility and the weight it should be afforded, the BIA cannot entirely dismiss a statement as unreliable based simply on the fact that it was prepared for purposes of litigation. The protections that the asylum statute was intended to provide would be gutted if we permitted the BIA to entirely reject all evidence presented by an asylum applicant that is prepared following the filing of the initial asylum application, and we see neither legal or logical support for such a ruling. We accordingly hold that the BIA abused its discretion in this case by rejecting Petitioner’s mother’s statement as unreliable based solely on the (erroneous) finding that it was unsworn and on the timing of its creation.
Finally, the BIA dismissed Petitioner’s mother’s statement as irrelevant because “the respondent’s mother is not similarly situated to the respondent, inasmuch as the incidents giving rise to her purported violations occurred in China, not in the United States.” (R. at 4.) This reasoning defies understanding. The heart of the matter is whether Petitioner will be persecuted if she is removed to China—to the town where her mother has allegedly been persecuted for the religious beliefs she shares with Petitioner, and where the local police have allegedly made threatening statements about Petitioner—and it is simply absurd to dismiss her mother’s experiences as irrelevant because her mother’s experiences occurred in China. Indeed, it is the very fact that her mother’s experiences occurred in China that makes them relevant to Petitioner’s motion to reopen. Tinasmuch as the incidents giving rise to her purported violations occurred in China, not in the United States.” (R. at 4.) This reasoning defies understanding. The heart of the matter is whether Petitioner will be persecuted if she is removed to China—to the town where her mother has allegedly been persecuted for the religious beliefs she shares with Petitioner, and where the local police have allegedly made threatening statements about Petitioner—and it is simply absurd to dismiss her mother’s experiences as irrelevant because her mother’s experiences occurred in China. Indeed, it is the very fact that her mother’s experiences occurred in China that makes them relevant to Petitioner’s motion to reopen. The nonsensical nature of the BIA’s supposed reasoning on this point is illustrative of the BIA’s failure to give fair consideration to any of the arguments in Petitioner’s motion to reopen in this case, and it represents the very definition of an abuse of discretion.
The BIA provided no rational, factually supported reason for denying Petitioner’s motion to reopen. We conclude that the BIA abused its discretion by denying the motion on factually erroneous, legally frivolous, and logically unsound grounds, and we accordingly remand this case back to the BIA for further consideration. In so doing, we express no opinion as to the ultimate merits of the case.”
HOW THE BIA FAILS TO PROVIDE FAIRNESS AND DUE PROCESS TO ASYLUM SEEKERS
Paul Wickham Schmidt
United States Immigration Judge (Retired)
Everyone should read the Tenth Circuit’s full opinion detailing the mounds of evidence that the BIA ignored and/or mischaracterized, at the above ink.
Folks, the 10th Circuit, former home of Justice Neil Gorsuch, is hardly known as a “haven” for asylum seekers. So, that the 10th finally is fed up with the BIA’s biased anti-asylum seeker decision making speaks volumes.
I’ve made the observation before that the BIA appears to be on “anti-asylum autopilot.” This looks for all the world like a “cut and paste” denial mass-produced by BIA staff from boilerplate that is unrelated to the facts, evidence, or, as this case shows, even the law. The BIA sometimes twists the law against asylum seekers; other times, as in this case, the BIA simply pretends that the law doesn’t exist by ignoring it. I can just imagine the BIA opinion drafter thinking to him or her self, “Oh boy, another routine PRC motion denial. This should sail through the panel without any problem. Need to get those numbers up for the month.”
This is not an isolated incident. As I’ve pointed out before, there is a strong anti-asylum bias in the BIA’s decisions. Virtually no BIA precedents (particularly since the “Ashcroft purge” when true deliberation and dissent were tossed out the window) illustrate how commonly arising situations can and should result in many more grants to asylum seekers under the generous principles enunciated by the Supreme Court in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca and by the BIA in Matter of Mogharrabi, yet routinely ignored by today’s BIA.
The majority of asylum seekers are credible individuals coming from countries where persecution, torture, and human rights abuses are well-documented. Even in the Northern Triangle, where the BIA has intentionally skewed the law against asylum seekers, torture by gangs by and cartels while the corrupt government authorities are either complicit or “willfully blind” abounds. The BIA, and some U.S. Immigration Judges, have to work overtime and routimely turn a blind eye to both facts and the law to deny protection in the majority of cases.
At a minimum, most Southern Border arrivals fleeing gang violence should be getting temporary grants of protection under the CAT. Instead, they are often railroaded out of the country, sometimes without even seeing a U.S. Immigration Judge, other times with no legal assistance to help them in making a claim. And, the Sessions-led Justice Department had the absolute gall to claim that this lawless and unconstitutional behavior amounts to a “return to the rule of law” at EOIR!
Where’s the outrage from this type of gross abuse of the system by politicos who should have no role in the operations of the U.S. Immigration Courts? Where is the Congressional oversight of Sessions’s use of the USDOJ as a tool to advance a blatantly restrictionist, White Nationalist political agenda? How does a system that functions this poorly, on all levels, justify elimination of annual in-person training of U.S. Immigration Judges?
When you read the full decision, you can see the voluminous evidentiary package that the respondent’s counsel put together just to get a reopened hearing. And, it resulted in an illegal denial by the BIA. Only an appeal to a Court of Appeals saved the day. How could any unrepresented asylum seeker achieve due process in a system that demands unreasonable documentation, routinely denies individuals the legal assistance necessary to assemble and present such evidence, and then ignores the evidence when it is presented? What kind of due process is this?
And, the Article III Courts have to shoulder some of blame. In particular, the Fifth Circuit “goes along to get along” with the BIA, and turns a blind eye to violations of human rights laws and skewed factfinding in “rubber stamping” inadequate hearings coming from detention centers in obscure locations in Texas.
Reiterating a point I’ve made numerous times, why is a captive, enforcement-oriented, pro-Government tribunal that performs in the manner detailed in this case entitled to “deference” on either the facts or the law (so-called “Cheveon deference” that has been criticized by Justice Gorsuch and others)?What’s “expert” about a tribunal that routinely ignores and misconstrues basic asylum law as detailed in this decision?
At a minimum, in light of the types of gross miscarriages of justice that have come to light in some recent Court of Appeals decisions, the BIA should change its internal operating procedures to require that all asylum denials be reviewed by a three-judge panel. But, don’t hold your breath. That would slow down the “assembly line” at the “Falls Church Service Center.” And turning out large numbers of final orders of removal without any real deliberation is what the “Sessions-Era BIA & EOIR” is all about.
Folks, we need an independent U.S. Immigration Court, including a competent Appellate Division (“BIA”). And in the future, selections of BIA Appellate Immigration Judges should be made in the same careful manner that applies to U.S. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Judges.
The “life and death” power wielded by U.S. Immigration Judges and BIA Appellate Immigration Judges actually exceeds that of most Article III Judges. Yet the selection process for the Immigration Judiciary is opaque, cumbersome, secretive, closed, and consistently produces one-sided results skewed toward “insiders” or those with government experience. In other words, those with a history of “going along to get along” in the system rather than showing independent thinking and the courage to stand up for due process even when it isn’t “in vogue” with the politicos in an Administration (and genuine due process for migrants is seldom”in vogue” these days in either GOP or Democratic Administrations).
Proven expertise, excellence, sensitivity to individual situations, and commitment to due process for migrants and correct application of human rights law and protections should be a minimum qualification for an Appellate Immigration Judge. And, the same question should be asked that was asked of Justice Gorsuch: “If necessary, are you willing to stand up and rule against the President and the Administration.” Obviously, in the case of the current BIA, the answer would largely be “No.”
Jennifer Rubin writes in “Right Turn” in the Washington Post:
“The 9th Circuit gave the back of the hand to the argument that the Trump administration could borrow a definition from another section of the immigration statute to exclude grandmothers. The Supreme Court had used mothers-in-law as an example of a close familial relationship it wanted to protect. The 9th Circuit judges wrote: “Plaintiffs correctly point out that the familial relationships the Government seeks to bar from entry are within the same ‘degree of kinship’ as a mother-in-law.” It’s hard to make a case that grandmothers would not qualify. It does not appear that the government even made a good-faith effort to apply the Supreme Court’s direction.
On one level, it’s shocking that a Republican administration that is supposed to be a defender of “family values” would take such a miserly position. But, of course, family values are of little consequence to an administration that is more than willing to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, auguring for the breakup of intimate family relations (e.g., one sibling gets deported but American-born siblings remain).
The 9th Circuit also looked at the administration’s argument that a refugee with a formal assurance of settlement lacks a bona fide relationship with some entity or individual in the United States. The court set out the laborious screening process refugees undertake (making a mockery of the notion these people are a security threat) and noted that after all those steps are completed the refugee gets a sponsorship assurance “from one of nine private non-profit organizations, known as resettlement agencies.” The 9th Circuit held: “The Government contends that a formal assurance does not create a bona fide relationship between a resettlement agency and a refugee, and stresses that ‘[t]he assurance is not an agreement between the resettlement agency and the refugee; rather, it is an agreement between the agency and the federal government.’ But the Supreme Court’s stay decision specifies that a qualifying relationship is one that is ‘formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course, rather than for the purpose of evading [the Executive Order].”’”
Again, one cannot help but come away with the impression that the government is throwing up every half-baked idea it can find to limit the number of people entering the country, regardless of the national security risk or the hardship its action inflicts. The Trump administration is plainly reasoning backward — deny as many people as possible admittance and then think up a reason to justify its position.
In its fixation with keeping as many immigrants out of the United States as possible, the Trump administration cannot claim to merely be following the dictates of the law. (Gosh it’s out of our hands — “Dreamers” and grandmas have to go!) It is making up rules willy-nilly so as to show its rabid xenophobic base it is adhering to its promise of racial and ethnic exclusion. It’s hard to believe seasoned career Justice Department lawyers agree with these arguments. In its oversight hearings Congress should start grilling Attorney General Jeff Sessions as to how he comes up with his cockamamie legal arguments and whether political appointees are running roughshod over career DOJ lawyers.
Read Rubin’s full article at the link.
TIME FOR ACTION ON THE BROKEN U.S. IMMIGRATION COURTS — IF CONGRESS WON’T ACT, THE FEDERAL COURTS MUST
Paul Wickham Schmidt
United States Immigration Judge (Retired)
If nothing else, the Trump Administration has given me a new appreciation for the Post’s “JRube.” She certainly has “dialed up” Gonzo’s number and exposed what’s behind his pompous, disingenuous misuse of the term “rule of law.”
No chance that a GOP Senate with Chuck Grassley as Judiciary Chair is going to hold Gonzo accountable for his daily perversions of “justice.” But, at some point, Federal Courts could begin sanctioning DOJ lawyers for willful misrepresentations (the Hawaii arguments before the 9th contained several) and frivolous positions in litigation. It’s possible that some DOJ lawyers all the way up to Gonzo himself could be referred by Federal Judges to state bar authorities for a look at whether their multiple violations of ethical standards should result suspension of their law licenses.
Another thought kicking around inside my head is that Gonzo’s actions and his public statements are starting to make a plausible case for a due process challenge to the continued operation of the U.S. Immigration Courts.
As with school desegregation, prison reform, and voting rights, a Federal Court could find systematic bias and failure to protect due process. That could result in something like 1) a requirement that the DOJ submit a “due process restoration” plan to the court for approval, or 2) the court appointment of an independent “judicial monitor” to run the courts in a fair and unbiased manner consistent with due process, or 3) the Federal Courts could take over supervision of the US Immigration Courts pending the creation of an Article I (or Article III) replacement.
High on the list of constitutionally-required reforms would be ending the location of courts within DHS detention facilities. All courts should be located in areas where adequate pro bono counsel is reasonably available and accessible. Immigration Courts should be located outside of DHS facilities in buildings accessible to the public with reasonable security requirements. Immigration Judges must be required to continue cases until pro bono counsel can be retained. Alternatively, the Government could provide for appointed counsel.
Another obvious due process reform would be to strip the Attorney General of his (conflict of interest) authority to establish or review precedents and operating procedures for the U.S. Immigration Courts. Along with that, the DHS should be given an equal right to appeal adverse BIA appellate decisions to the Courts of Appeals (rather than seeking relief from the AG — clearly an interested party in relation to immigration enforcement).
There also should be an immediate end to the appointment and supervision of U.S. Immigration Judges by the politically-biased AG. U.S. Immigration Judges and BIA Appellate Immigration Judges should be appointed on a strict merit basis by either an independent judicial monitor or by the U.S. Courts of Appeals until Congress enacts statutory reforms.
The current U.S. Immigration Court system mocks justice in the same way that Jeff “Gonzo Apocalypto” Sessions mocks it almost every day. There might be no practical way to legally remove Gonzo at present, but the Federal Courts could step in to force the U.S. Immigration Courts to undertake due process reforms. The current situation is unacceptable from a constitutional due process standpoint. Something has to change for the better!
“The backlog of cases in US immigration courts has continued to worsen amid the Trump administration’s border crackdown, new statistics show.
As of the end of July, there were 617,527 cases pending in immigration courts. It’s the first time this number has crossed the 600,000 mark, according to information released on Thursday by the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University that tracks US government data.
The immigration court system, which is an arm of the US Department of Justice, has been grappling with growing caseloads for years. Immigration judges and lawyers have reported case delays stretching years out. But the latest numbers show a large jump in 2017. When Trump took office in January, there were approximately 540,000 pending cases.
“It is still overwhelming to the immigration judges,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “The levels of caseload are higher than we’ve ever seen before.”
. . . .
As of Aug. 14, there were 334 immigration judges nationwide — 54 have been hired since Trump took office. The office is authorized by Congress to have 384 judges. Marks said that a large number of judges are eligible to retire, which could cut into any progress that DOJ makes in hiring new judges. New judges also don’t move as quickly as experienced ones, she said.
Under a Jan. 25 executive order on immigration enforcement, the Justice Department said in August that it had mobilized more than 100 immigration judges to hear cases at Department of Homeland Security detention facilities, either in-person or by video teleconferencing. Between Feb. 1 and July 31, immigration judges had issued nearly 28 percent more deportation orders as compared to the same time period last year, DOJ said.
Marks said that immigration judges had been warning officials about the backlog for years, and would continue to do so.
“The canaries in the coal mine are still gasping for air,” she said.”
The DOJ is: clueless. planless, incompetent, and totally unqualified to manage a system of the size and importance of the current US Immigration Court consistently with due process. Systemically, knowingly running a system that engages in Aimless Docket Reshuffling (“ADR”), puts long pending cases that can be tried at the end of the line (many years out), while engaging in unnecessary detention and hustling more recent arrivals through without a reasonable chance to obtain representation or present their claims for relief, indeed sometimes without any hearings at all, is already a “default” on due process. Greater reliance on already outdated and overwhelmed “televideo court equipment” will further compromise due process. Even now, as most Immigration Judges and attorneys who have to use EOIR Televideo courts will tell you, the system is NQRFPT (“Not Quite Ready For Prime Time”). Jamming more cases into it is asking for a complete breakdown.
I’m actually somewhat surprised that no group has found a way to bring a class action seeking to shut down the entire Immigration Court System and the DHS Administrative Removal System until improvements are made so that they comply with due process. Sort of like the litigation that eventually required some prison systems to come into compliance with constitutional norms. In some cases, this is even worse than prisons, since many individuals in immigration detention haven’t been convicted of any crimes; they are just asserting their statutory and constitutional rights to have a fair adjudication of their ability to remain in the US.
Also, how is a system that treats its own judges as “canaries gasping for breath in the coal mine” going to deliver on due process for those individuals expecting it from those same judges? It isn’t.
And Congress should not get off the hook either. This problem has been growing very publicly for years over several Administrations while Congress has failed to deliver on proposals for an independent US Immigration Court that have been kicking around for more than a decade!
None of the DOJ’s statements deal with the real solution here: use of prosecutorial discretion “PD” on a widespread basis to resolve most of these cases and take them off the Immigration Courts’ docket. That needs to be followed by serious negotiations with Congress for: 1) a realistic legalization program, 2) an increase in legal immigration to put our immigration laws more in line with the actual market conditions that are bringing, and will continue to bring, more immigrant workers to the US, and an independent Immigration Court where the capacity to adjudicate cases consistently with due process is a primary consideration in both DHS’s deciding how many cases to place on the docket and how individual judges manage their individual dockets. That’s simply making changes to bring the Immigration Court system and the immigration laws into line with the rest of the U.S. legal system and our overall needs to maintain and administer a much more robust and inclusive legal immigration system that wouldn’t waste money on impractical walls and on “gonzo” immigration enforcement ands unnecessary detention.