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 Proper Role of Immigration Judges as Asylum Adjudicators
I would like to expand on the topic raised in my response to the BIA’s recent precedent decision in Matter of W-Y-C- & H-O-B-. In the U.S. system, what tensions exist between an immigration judge’s role as an independent judge within an adversarial system, and his or her overlapping role as an adjudicator of asylum claims?
As we all know, the 1980 Refugee Act was enacted to put the U.S. in compliance with the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (to which the U.S. acceded through the 1967 Protocol). For that reason, numerous courts through the years have found the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status to provide “significant guidance in construing the Protocol” and a useful instrument “in giving content to the obligations the Protocol establishes,” as the U.S. Supreme Court stated in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca. The BIA has referenced the UNHCR Handbook in at least ten precedent decisions, as have numerous circuit courts.
Paragraphs 66 and 67 of the Handbook state the following:
66. In order to be considered a refugee, a person must show well-founded fear of persecution for one of the reasons stated above. It is immaterial whether the persecution arises from any single one of these reasons or from a combination of two or more of them. Often the applicant himself may not be aware of the reasons for the persecution feared. It is not, however, his duty to analyze his case to such an extent as to identify the reasons in detail.
67. It is for the examiner, when investigating the facts of the case, to ascertain the reason or reasons for the persecution feared and to decide whether the definition in the 1951 Convention is met with in this respect… (emphasis added.)
Not surprisingly, this approach is employed by the USCIS Asylum Office. Created in the implementation of the 1990 asylum regulations, the office’s first director, Gregg Beyer, previously worked for UNHCR for more than 12 years. The Asylum Officer Basic Training Manual (“AOBTM”) on the topic of nexus states that although the applicant bears the burden of proving nexus, the asylum officer has an affirmative duty to elicit all relevant information, and “should fully explore the motivations of any persecutor involved in the case.” The AOBTC therefore directs the asylum officer to “make reasonable inferences, keeping in mind the difficulty, in many cases, of establishing with precision a persecutor’s motives.”
The AOBTC also cites the 1988 BIA precedent decision in Matter of Fuentes.1 In that case, the Board held that “an applicant does not bear the unreasonable burden of establishing the exact motivation of a ‘persecutor’ where different reasons for actions are possible. However, an applicant does bear the burden of establishing facts on which a reasonable person would fear that the danger arises on account of” a protected ground.
In Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Board takes the view that “it is for the Refugee Division to determine the ground, if any, applicable to the claimant’s fear of persecution.” The U.S. is unusual, if not unique, among western nations in not also delegating this responsibility to immigration judges. Also, note that the IRB references the “Refugee Division;” like many countries, Canada’s equivalent of immigration courts is divided into immigration and refugee divisions, in recognition of the special obligations and knowledge that asylum determinations require. The U.S. immigration court system does not have a separate refugee determination division; asylum claims are heard by the same judges and under the same conditions as all other types of immigration cases. Furthermore, as noted above, U.S. immigration judges hear cases in an adversarial setting, in which judges assume a passive, neutral role.
The role of asylum adjudicator carries responsibilities that are at odds with the the role of neutral arbiter. Asylum adjudicators are required to share the burden of documenting the asylum claim; the UNHCR Handbook at para. 196 states that “in some cases, it may be for the examiner to use all of the means at his disposal to produce the necessary evidence in support of the application.”2 And, as discussed above, once the facts are ascertained, it is the adjudicator who should identify the reasons for the feared persecution and determine if such reasons bear a nexus to a protected ground.
During the Department of Justice’s asylum reform discussions in the early 1990s, Gregg Beyer stated that the idea of separate asylum judges was considered, but ultimately rejected. To my knowledge, EOIR has never conducted an in-depth analysis of the conflicts between the judge’s responsibilities as an asylum adjudicator and his or her role as a neutral arbiter in adversarial proceedings. I discussed the Board’s incorrect holding in Matter of W-Y-C- & H-O-B- under which genuine refugees may be ordered returned to countries where they will face persecution because the asylum applicants lacked the sophistication to properly delineate a particular social group, a complex legal exercise that many immigration attorneys (and immigration judges) are unable to do. The problem also extends to other protected grounds. Would an unrepresented asylum applicant (who might be a child) understand what an imputed political opinion is? Would most asylum applicants be able to explain that actions viewed as resisting the authority of a third-generation gang such as MS-13 might constitute a political opinion? Regulations should be enacted making it the responsibility of immigration judges to consider these questions. Additionally, immigration judges, BIA Board Members and staff attorneys should be required to undergo specialized training to enable them to identify and properly analyze these issues.
1. 19 I&N Dec. 658 (BIA 1988).
2. See also the BIA’s precedent decision in Matter of S-M-J-, 21 I&N Dec. 722 (BIA 1997), which I have referenced in other articles.
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.
He’s speeding up their hearings, and if that leads to expelling exemplary immigrants on whose paperwork the government is sitting—well, that’s tough.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department
This could be Jeff Sessions’s year.
Not that he wasn’t busy in 2017, a year marked by his rescinding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), attacking sanctuary cities, reinstating debtors’ prisons, and cracking down on recreational marijuana. Indeed, over these last few months Sessions appears to have been working with the single-minded focus of a man who reportedly came within inches of losing his job in July after falling into President Trump’s bad graces for recusing himself from the Mueller probe.
But 2018 will provide him his best chance yet at Trumpian redemption.
Sessions has long railed against the United States’ “broken” asylum system and the massive backlog of immigration court cases, which has forced immigrants to suffer unprecedented wait times and has put a significant strain on court resources. But the attorney general’s appetite for reform has now grown beyond pushing for more judges and a bigger budget, both largely bipartisan solutions. The past few months have seen Sessions begin to attempt to assert his influence over the work of immigration courts (which, unlike other federal courts, are part of the Executive Branch) and on diminishing the legal protections commonly used by hundreds of thousands of immigrants—developments that have alarmed immigration judges, attorneys, and immigrant advocacy groups alike.
Earlier this month, Sessions announced that he would be reviewing a decades-old practice used by immigration judges and the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals to shelve cases without making a final ruling. Described by judges as a procedural tool for prioritizing cases and organizing their case dockets, the practice—“administrative closure”—also provides immigrants a temporary reprieve from deportation while their cases remain in removal proceedings. Critics argue that administrative closure, which became far more frequent in the later years of the Obama administration, creates a quasi-legal status for immigrants who might otherwise be deported.
There are currently around 350,000 administratively closed cases, according to according to the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal.
Should Sessions decide to eliminate administrative closures—a decision many observers describe as imminent—those cases could be thrown into flux. The move would be in line with previous statements from various figures in the Trump administration and executive orders signed by the president himself—namely, that no immigrant is safe from deportation; no population is off the table.
Beyond creating chaos for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the premature recalendaring of cases could also lead to erroneous deportations. For instance, in the case of unaccompanied minors applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a humanitarian protection granted by Citizenship and Immigration Services, an untimely return to court could be the difference between remaining or being ordered to leave the country. Even if a minor has already been approved by a state judge to apply for a green card, there is currently a two-year visa backlog for special visa applicants from Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras and more than a one-year backlog for those from from Mexico. Administrative closures allow these children to avoid deportation while they wait in line for a visa to become available.
But if judges can no longer close a case, they will either have to grant a string of continuances, a time-consuming act that requires all parties (the judge, defendant, and government attorney) to show up to court repeatedly, or simply issue an order of removal—even if the immigrant has a winning application sitting on a desk in Citizenship and Immigration Services. Under the Trump administration, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been actively filing to recalendar cases of non-criminals that had been administratively closed for months, including those of children whose applications had already been approved. Now Sessions, who as a senator zealously opposed immigration reforms that would benefit undocumented immigrants, could recalendar them all.
Unshelving hundreds of thousands of cases would also further bog down an already towering backlog of approximately 650,000 immigration court cases, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse—a policy result that at first seems antithetical to Sessions’s rhetoric about cutting the backlog and raising efficiency. That is unless, as some suggest, the backlog and efficiency were never really his primary concerns to begin with.
“When [Sessions] says he wants to decrease the court backlog and hire more immigration judges, what he really means is he wants more deportation orders, whatever the cost,” says Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Removing a judge’s ability to close a case would be the second in a one-two punch aimed at knocking down avenues of relief for cases that remain in the system for long periods of time.
Sessions’s decision to review administrative closure surprised few who had been following his rhetoric over the past few weeks. In a December memo detailing plans to slash the backlog, the attorney general said that he anticipated “clarifying certain legal matters in the near future that will remove recurring impediments to judicial economy and the timely administration of justice.” The Justice Department had already largely done away with allowing prosecutors to join in motions to administratively close a case that didn’t fall within its enforcement priorities. Removing a judge’s ability to close a case would be the second in a one-two punch aimed at knocking down avenues of relief for cases that remain in the system for long periods of time.
And it’s unlikely that Sessions will stop there. As attorney general, he is free to review legal precedents for lower immigration courts. In changing precedential rulings, he could do away with a multitude of other legal lifelines essential to immigrants and their attorneys.
. . . .
“Administrative closure makes a good starting point for Sessions, because the courts likely won’t be able stop it,” says Paul Schmidt, a former immigration judge and former head of the Board of Immigration Appeals. “Administrative closure was a tool created by the Justice Department and therefore it can be dismantled by the Justice Department.”
“After all, the bad thing about the immigration courts is that they belong to the attorney general,” Schmidt adds.
Unlike other federal judges, immigration judges are technically considered Justice Department employees. This unique status as a judicial wing of the executive branch has left them open to threats of politicization. In October, it was revealed that the White House was planning on adding metrics on the duration and quantity of cases adjudicated by immigration judges to their performance reviews, effectively creating decision quotas. A spokeswoman for the National Association of Immigration Judges described the proposal as a worrying encroachment on judicial independence. “Immigration judge morale is at an all time low,” says Dana Marks, former president of the association and a judge for more than 30 years. Other federal judges are not subject to any such performance evaluations.
It’s no coincidence that a review of administrative closure was announced just a few months after it was discovered that the Justice Department was considering imposing quotas on judges. Streamlining deportations has proven an elusive goal, even for Sessions: Deportations in 2017 were down from the previous year, according to DHS numbers. Meanwhile, arrests surged—up 42 percent from the same period in 2016. Flooding already overwhelmed immigration courts with even more cases would certainly cause chaos in the short-term, but wouldn’t necessarily lead to deportations by itself. If an end to administrative closures is paired with decision quotas on immigration judges, however, a surge in deportations seems inevitable.”
Read Manuel’s complete article at the above link.
As I’ve noted before, Due Process clearly is “on the run” at the U.S. Immigration Courts. It will be up to the “New Due Process Army” and other advocates to take a stand against Sessions’s plans to erode Constitutional Due Process and legal protections for immigrants of all types. And don’t think that some U.S. citizens, particularly Blacks, Latinos, and Gays, aren’t also “in his sights for denial of rights.” An affront to the rights of the most vulnerable in America should be taken seriously for what it is — an attack on the rights of all of us as Americans! Stand up for Due Process before it’s too late!
“A Dec. 20 memo, issued by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) replaces 2007 guidelines, spelling out policies and procedures judges should follow in dealing with children who crossed the border illegally alone and face possible deportation.
The new memo removes suggestions contained in the 2007 memo for how to conduct “child-sensitive questioning” and adds reminders to judges to maintain “impartiality” even though “juvenile cases may present sympathetic allegations.” The new document also changes the word “child” to “unmarried individual under the age of 18” in many instances.
An EOIR official said the new memo contained “clarifications and updates” to 10-year-old guidance “in order to be consistent with the laws as they’ve been passed by Congress.” The new memo was posted on the Justice Department website but has not been previously reported.
Immigration advocates said they worry the new guidelines could make court appearances for children more difficult, and a spokeswoman for the union representing immigration judges said judges are concerned about the tone of the memo.
President Donald Trump has made tougher immigration enforcement a key policy goal of his administration, and has focused particularly on trying to curb the illegal entry of children. The administration says it wants to prevent vulnerable juveniles from making perilous journeys to the United States and eliminate fraud from programs for young immigrants.
One changed section of the memo focuses on how to make children comfortable in the court in advance of hearings. The old guidance says they “should be permitted to explore” courtrooms and allowed to “sit in all locations, (including, especially, the judge’s bench and the witness stand).”
The new guidance says such explorations should take place only “to the extent that resources and time permit” and specifically puts the judge’s bench off limits.
The new memo also warns judges to be skeptical, since an unaccompanied minor “generally receives more favorable treatment under the law than other categories of illegal aliens,” which creates “an incentive to misrepresent accompaniment status or age in order to attempt to qualify for the benefits.” It also says to be on the lookout for “fraud and abuse,” language that was not in the previous memo.
‘WOLVES IN SHEEP CLOTHING’
Immigration judges are appointed by the U.S. Attorney General and courts are part of the Department of Justice, not an independent branch. The only sitting immigration judges routinely allowed to speak to the media are representatives of their union, the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Dana Marks, a sitting judge and spokeswoman for the union, said the “overall tone” of the memo “is very distressing and concerning to immigration judges.”
“There is a feeling that the immigration courts are just being demoted into immigration enforcement offices, rather than neutral arbiters,” Marks said. “There has been a relentless beating of the drum toward enforcement rather than due process.”
Former immigration judge Andrew Arthur, who now works at the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes lower levels of immigration overall, said the new guidelines were needed.
In their previous form, he said, “so much emphasis was placed on the potential inability of the alien to understand the proceedings … that it almost put the judge into the position of being an advocate.”
The courts have had to handle a surge in cases for unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, after their numbers sky-rocketed in 2014 as violence in the region caused residents to flee north.
While illegal crossings initially fell after Trump took office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that since May, each month has seen an increase in children being apprehended either alone or with family members.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech in Boston in September that the special accommodations for unaccompanied minors had been exploited by “gang members who come to this country as wolves in sheep clothing.”
Echoing some of these concerns, the new memo notes in a preamble that not all child cases involve innocents, and that the courts might see “an adolescent gang member” or “a teenager convicted as an adult for serious criminal activity.”
Jennifer Podkul, policy director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) said Congress included special procedural protections for immigrant children in a 2008 anti-trafficking bill to “make sure that a kid gets a fair shot in the courtroom.”
“These kids are by themselves telling a very complicated and oftentimes very traumatic story,” said Podkul. “The approach of this memo, which is much more suspicious, is not going to help get to the truth of a child’s story.”
In cases where children are called to testify, the old guidance instructed judges to “seek to limit the amount of time the child is on the stand.” The new guidance says that judges should “consider” limiting the child’s time on the stand “without compromising due process for the opposing party,” which is generally a government prosecutor.
The memo leaves in a range of special accommodations made for children, including allowing them to bring a pillow or booster seat or a “toy, book, or other personal item.” It also maintains that cases involving unaccompanied minors should be heard on a separate docket when possible and that children should not be detained or transported with adults.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sue Horton and Mary Milliken”
Yes, my dear friend Judge Dana Leigh Marks, Gonzo sees and treats the U.S. Immigration Courts as part of DHS Enforcement — “Just a Whistlestop on The Deportation Express.”
After 35 years of flawed DOJ stewardship and improper political meddling by all Administrations, the U.S. Immigration Courts are largely back in the same hopeless, understaffed, incompetently administered, enforcement-dominated mess that they were in 1983 when the Reagan Administration created EOIR to provide at least some actual and apparent separation between prosecutorial and judicial functions.
The only solution is an independent Article I U.S. Immigration Court. Until that happens, failure, inefficiency, ands unfairness will continue to plague the immigration Court system.
Eventually, the Article III reviewing courts are going to have to decide whether 1) to simply put the Constitution and their judicial oaths in the drawer and give the Executive a “free pass” on immigration; or 2) do their duty, stop the train, and essentially take over the administration of the immigration Courts by ordering Immigration Judges and the BIA to conform to certain basic due process requirements or face the prospect of having almost every Petition for Review returned for a “redo.” If you think the backlog is bad now, wait till that happens.
At this point, I hope for #2, but see #1 as a distinct possibility, particularly as Trump continues to co-opt the Article III judiciary with judges for whom loyalty to Trump and his agenda appears a more important qualification that a reputation for scholarship, legal excellence, collegiality, impartiality, and fairness.
I also found the comments of my former colleague Judge (Retired) Andrew Arthur somewhat puzzling. If you are a judge in a courtroom actually trying to carry out your constitutional duty to provide due process and fairness; the DHS is represented by an experienced Assistant Chief Counsel; and you have an unrepresented kid who is scared to return his or her home country, who is going to be that child’s advocate if not the Immigration Judge?
Rather than bogus guidelines, the Administration should be doing the right thing and the smart thing — working with the private bar to insure that cases involving claims for asylum and other protection are docketed and scheduled in a manner that insures that each applicant will have reasonable access to pro bono or low bono counsel before filing the Form I-589 for asylum.
To take the most obvious example, Jennifer Podkul, Policy Director of Kids in Need of Defense (“KIND), and Wendy Young, Executive Director of KIND are as smart as any lawyers around. They want the Immigration Court system to succeed in a fair and efficient manner. They have spent more time thinking about the problems of kids in Immigraton Court and how to solve them than any individual or group of individuals now in the US. Government.
So, instead of “trashing” immigration lawyers, why don’t Sessions and his subordinates at DOJ sit down with Young, Podkul, and some of their other high-powered NGO colleagues, and Judge Marks and the NAIJ and work out a solutionfor getting kids through the Immigraton Court system in a fair manner consistent with Due Process? Why is Sessions so afraid to venture outside of his little “restrictionist world” in trying to solve problems?
But, unfortunately, this Administration is much more interested in forcing failure on the system and then pointing fingers at the victims, that is, the migrants seeking justice, than it is in achieving the real reformsnecessary to get our U.S. Immigration Courts operating in a fair, impartial, and efficient manner, consistent with the law and Constitutional Due Process.
“In a little noted, but quite extraordinary move, the National Association of Immigration Judges (“NAIJ”) has asked Congress to protect its members (Immigration Judges) from the Trump Administration (their employer). The reason? The Trump Administration is seeking to “evaluate judges’ performance based on numerical measures or production quotas.” According to NAIJ, “If EOIR is successful in tying case completion quotas to judge performance evaluations, it could be the death knell for judicial independence in the Immigration Courts.” “Judges can face potential termination for good faith legal decisions of which their supervisors do not approve.”
EOIR is developing a more efficient way to adjudicate cases (and it comes with a free drink!).
Let’s start with a bit of background. NAIJ is a voluntary organization of United States Immigration Judges. It also is the recognized representative of Immigration Judges for collective bargaining purposes(in other words, the IJs’ union): “Our mission is to promote the independence of Immigration Judges and enhance the professionalism, dignity, and efficiency of the Immigration Courts, which are the trial-level tribunals where removal proceedings initiated by the Department of Homeland Security are conducted.”
According to NAIJ, the most important regulation governing IJ decision-making is 8 C.F.R. § 1003.10(b). This regulation requires that immigration judges exercise judicial independence. Specifically, “in deciding the individual cases before them, and subject to the applicable governing standards, immigration judges shall exercise their independent judgment and discretion and may take any action consistent with their authorities under the Act and regulations that is appropriate and necessary for the disposition of such cases.” 8 C.F.R. §1 003.10(b).
Up until now, IJs were exempted from quantitative performance evaluations. According to NAIJ, “The basis for this 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.”
The Trump Administration is now moving to change the way it evaluates IJs. The main reason for the change is the Administration’s goal of reducing the very-large backlog of cases in Immigration Court (currently, there are about 640,000 pending cases). The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR – the office that administers the nation’s Immigration Courts) recently announced a plan to “transform its institutional culture to emphasize the importance of completing cases.” In other words, EOIR will judge its judges based–at least in part–on the number of cases completed.
NAIJ has called this development “alarming” and a threat to judicial independence. Why? Because when judges are forced to complete a certain number of cases, they may be unable to devote the necessary time to each case. As a result, the ability to make proper, well-thought-out decisions will suffer.
This is already a problem in Immigration Court. One IJ famously quipped that his job involved adjudicating death penalty cases in a traffic court setting. And so pushing judges to do more cases in less time will potentially impact the alien’s due process rights, and the integrity of our Immigration Courts.
NAIJ has long believed that the system needs a “structural overhaul” and has advocated for converting the Immigration Courts into Article I courts. Article I refers to the first article in the U.S. Constitution, the section on legislative (i.e., Congressional) powers. The idea is that Congress would establish an independent immigration court, much like it created a tax court and a court of veterans appeal. Such a court would be independent of the Executive Branch–the branch of government tasked with enforcing immigration law (currently, IJs are employees of the Department of Justice, a part of the Executive Branch).
NAIJ recognizes that creating Article I immigration courts “may not be feasible right now,” but it nevertheless urges Congress to protect the nation’s IJs from the new Trump Administration policy:
Congress can… easily and swiftly resolve this problem through a simple amendment to the civil service statute on performance reviews. Recognizing that performance evaluations are antithetical to judicial independence, Congress exempted Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) from performance appraisals and ratings by including them in the list of occupations exempt from performance reviews in 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2)(D). This provision lists ALJs as one of eight categories (A through H) of employees who are excluded from the requirement of performance appraisals and ratings. To provide that same exemption to Immigration Judges, all that would be needed is an amendment to 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2), which would add a new paragraph (I) listing Immigration Judges in that list of exempt employees.
The fact that IJs themselves are concerned about the Administration’s move is worrying. The Immigration Judges I know are conscientious and take their jobs very seriously (in contrast to the Trump Administration, which seems utterly lacking in seriousness). If EOIR is making it more difficult for IJs to do their duty, as they understand it, then something is clearly wrong.
Perhaps the IJs’ concerns are overblown. Maybe EOIR will implement the new case completion standards in a way that does not damage judicial independence or due process. But given the Administration’s track record in general, and the inexperienced acting director appointed to head EOIR, it’s difficult to have much confidence in the new policy. Since Congress is unlikely to act on NAIJ’s request for protection, I suppose we will see soon enough how these changes affect the Immigration Courts.
Finally, in my opinion, EOIR has largely misdiagnosed the problem. While some delay may be caused by IJs kicking the can down the road, or by aliens “playing” the system, most delay is systematic–it is caused by reshuffling Administration priorities, which affect how DHS and DOJ schedule cases. I doubt that imposing numerical quotas on IJs will do much to improve the situation. Other solutions–facilitating pre-trial conferences, reforming the Master Calendar system, better use of technology, imposition of costs, premium processing for certain applicants–might be more effective. Everyone agrees that reducing the backlog is a worthy goal, but case completion requirements are probably not the best way to achieve that end.”
“Extraordinary” to be sure! Folks, this isn’t the Ninth Circuit or even the Seventh, Second, or Fourth Circuit, all of which from time to time have “stood tall” for the Due Process rights of migrants.
For those unfamiliar with the process, the U.S. immigration Court is a “captive Administrative Court” functioning as part of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) rather as an independent judiciary established under Article III or Article I of the U.S. Constitution.
For the past 17 years, the DOJ (with the exception of an ill-fated move by the Bush II Administration to hand out Immigration Judgeships as political rewards to their faithful) has gone out of its way to insure that those selected as Immigration Judges have a record demonstrating a “commitment to achieving agency priorities.” Translated from bureaucratese, that means that they understand the DHS immigration enforcement objectives and will not “rock the boat” by expanding or recognizing any new rights for migrants unless given permission to do so by the DOJ or DHS.
Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a judiciary where the overwhelming number of new U.S, immigration Judges appointed since 2000 — nearly 90% — come from “safe” government backgrounds, primarily from the DHS. Moreover, no “Appellate Immigration Judge” (or, “Board Member”) at the BIA has been appointed directly from outside the U.S. Government since the pre-21st Century “Schmidt Era” at the BIA. (For “EOIR trivia buffs,” the last two outside appointments to the BIA in 2000 were the late Hon. Juan P. Osuna and the Hon. Cecelia M. Expenoza who was exiled along with me and others during the “Ashcroft Purge” of 2003.)
So, we’re dealing with a basically conservative, government-oriented judiciary of “non-boat rockers” who mostly achieved and retained their present judicial positions by “knowing and doing what the boss wanted” and making sure that any “deviations” were within limits that would be tolerated.
Yes, it’s OK to grant some asylum cases, particularly from Africa or the Middle East, over DHS objections; but “watch out” if you start granting lots of asylum to folks from the Northern Triangle or Mexico for whom the big “NOT WELCOME SIGN” has been hung out by the last three Administrations, or if you accept any new “particular social groups” which Administrations tend to view with fearful eyes as potentially “opening the floodgates” of protection to those who sorely need and can easily access it (in other words, to those whom the Geneva Refugee Convention actually was intended to protect.)
So, this isn’t a judiciary that normally would be expected to “buck the system.” Indeed, although the world has probably never been worse for refugees since World War II, the Immigration Courts seem to have inexplicably but dutifully reduced asylum grants since the clearly xenophobic, anti-refugee, and anti-asylum Trump Administration assumed office and Gonzo began delivering his anti-asylum, anti-lawyer, anti-immigrant rants.
Therefore, the threat to the limited judicial independence that U.S. Immigration Judges possess under the regulations (which haven’t prevented occasional “reassignments” for ideological or political reasons in the past) has to be presumed both real and immediate to prompt this group to take the risky action of publicly seeking protection. After all, Gonzo could potentially “retaliate” by further limiting the judges’ authority, further jacking up the already astronomically high stress levels under which the judges operate, or “reassigning” “unreliable” judges to more mundane or unattractive positions within the DOJ (sometimes known as “hallwalker” positions).
It’s definitely a further sign of an unhealthy judicial system on the verge of collapse. Before that happens, and 650,000+ additional cases spew forth into other parts of our justice system, it would be wise of Congress to make at least some immediate reforms to preserve independence and due process within the U.S. immigration Courts.
I also agree with Jason that attorneys and respondents are not the major problem driving uncontrolled backlogs in the U.S. immigration Courts. No, it’s all about “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” (“ADR”) generated by EOIR itself at the behest of its political handlers at the DOJ.
But, I don’t agree with Jason’s statement that EOIR has merely “misdiagnosed” the problem. No, EOIR and DOJ know exactly what the problem is, because they created it (egged on, no doubt by DHS and sometimes the White House).
Gonzo and EOIR are intentionally misrepresenting and misusing datato hide the truth about how screwed up the system has become because of the DOJ’s toxic combination of administrative incompetence with improper political and enforcement motives. In other words, DOJ is attempting to cover up its own “fraud, waste, and abuse” of public funds.
Even worse, and more reprehensible, Gonzo is attempting disingenuously to shift the blame to respondents and their overworked attorneys who are more often than not the actual victims of the scam being pulled off by the DOJ as part of the Trump Administration’s xenophobic, White Nationalist campaign to reduce the precious rights of asylum seekers and others. We can’t let him get away with it!
“As he awaits his fate in a remote Texas jail, Mr. Gutierrez, 54, remains convinced of the peril he faces if deported to his native country. “My life depends on this [appeal],” he said by telephone in a news conference organized Monday by the National Press Club. “I’m terrified to set foot in Mexico.”
The judge who denied asylum in the case, Robert S. Hough, pointed to an absence of documentary and testimonial corroboration of Mr. Gutierrez’s claim. The woman who relayed word of the alleged death threat did not come forward; neither did Mr. Gutierrez’s former boss at the newspaper for which he worked in Chihuahua. Much of Mr. Gutierrez’s case comes down to his word.
Nonetheless, the judge’s cut-and-dried application of the law fails to take into account conditions in Mexico generally and the peril faced there by journalists in particular. It’s not surprising that Mr. Gutierrez cannot recover copies of his articles, written more than a decade ago for a regional newspaper. Nor is it unusual that witnesses are reluctant to come forward, given the fear with which many Mexicans regard the security forces.
As a U.N. report published this month concluded, citing the deaths, disappearances and attacks on dozens of journalists tallied by Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, “The data . . . presents a picture for the situation of journalists in Mexico that cannot be described as other than catastrophic.” Against that background, it seems cavalier to dismiss the threat Mr. Gutierrez faces should he be deported to Mexico. He should be granted asylum.”
Read the complete Editorial at the link.
Unfortunately, a “cut and dried application of the law” without proper regard to the facts or reality is a disturbingly accurate snapshot of what all too often happens daily in our Immigration Courts, a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the US Department of Justice and part of the “Trump Conglomerate” (formerly known as the US Government).
Our failing US Immigration Court system and its aggravation by AG “Gonzo Apocalypto’s” oft-expressed hostility to immigrants, asylum, the rule of law (except his 1950s “Jim Crow” views on the law and how it should be a tool for injustice and advancing White Nationalism), lawyers, Latinos, Mexicans, and the press has become an almost daily topic for major editorial boards. At least someone (other than me) is watching and documenting as this mockery of American justice unfolds before us.
In particular, too many U.S. Immigration Judges are tone-deaf to Mexican asylum claims, not wanting to be accused of “opening the floodgates” ( a concept that is nowhere to be found in the actual law) and knowing that “Gonzo” wants lots of “quick removals” rather than asylum grants. Additionally, the only administrative check on the Immigration Judges’ authority is a weak Appeals Board that never “calls out” overly restrictive Immigration Judges by name and seldom publishes precedents granting asylum. Truly, a prescription for a “Due Process Disaster!”
Judge Hough seems to have forgotten that under the law:
”Corroborating evidence” can only be required if it is “reasonably available;”
Testimony may be corroborated by country condition information describing the same abuses that the applicant claims;
The standard for granting asylum is a generous “well-founded fear” or “reasonable likelihood” of future harm which can be “significantly less than probable — as little as a 10% chance can suffice;
Asylum applicants are supposed to be given the “benefit of the doubt” in recognition of the evidentiary challenges of providing proof of persecution and the difficulties of relating traumatic events in the past.
It remain to be seen whether the Board of Immigration Appeals, EOIR’s “Appellate Court,” will correct Judge Hough’s life-threatening errors and, further, issue a strong precedent on asylum for foreign journalists (traditionally one of the most vulnerable and persecuted groups) to prevent further miscarriages of Justice such as this. Such a precedent would also discourage the DHS from continuing to abuse our system by pushing for removal (and needless detention) in cases such as this where a grant of asylum at the DHS Asylum Office or at the hearing following the testimony would be the correct result.
Or, will the next major editorial describe and decry Mr. Gutierrez’s death in Mexico!
In a well-functioning justice system, this case should have been a “Short-docket, No-brainer Grant.” But, Gonzo Apocalypto seeks to use the US Immigration Courts as an extension of DHS enforcement rather than, as they were intended, as Courts guaranteeing fairness, Due Process, and equal justice for all! We need change. Lots of it!
[NOTE: For those interested, Judge Hough apparently has not decided enough asylum cases on the merits in El Paso to be listed on the statistical profile of asylum outcomes maintained by TRAC Immigration.]
“The broader dysfunction in America’s immigration system remains largely unchanged. Federal immigration courts are grappling with a backlog of some 600,000 cases, an epic logjam. The administration wants to more than double the number of the 300 or so immigration judges, but that will take time. And its recent moves to evaluate judges based on the speed with which they handle dockets that typically exceed 2,000 cases, rather than on fair adjudication, is a recipe for assembly-line injustice.
Mr. Trump’s campaign bluster on deportation was detached from reality. He said he’d quickly deport 2 million or 3 million criminal illegal immigrants, but unless he’s counting parking scofflaws and jaywalkers, he won’t find that many “bad hombres” on the loose. In fact, legal and illegal immigrants are much less likely to end up in jail than U.S. citizens, according to a study by the Cato Institute.
The president’s sound and fury on deportation signify little. He has intensified arrests, disrupting settled and productive lives, families and communities — but to what end? Only an overhaul of America’s broken immigration system offers the prospect of a more lasting fix.”
Read the full article at the link.
The Post also points out the damage caused by Trump’s racist “bad hombres” rabble rousing and the largely bogus nature of the Administration’s claims to be removing “dangerous criminals.” No, the latter would require some professionalism and real law enforcement skills. Those characteristics are non-existent among Trump Politicos and seem to be in disturbingly short supply at DHS. To crib from Alabama GOP Senator Richard Shelby’s statement about “Ayatollah Roy:” Certainly DHS can do better than Tom Homan.
And certainly America can do better than a US Immigration Court run by White Nationalist Attorney General Jeff “Gonzo Apocalypto” Sessions. Gonzo’s warped concept of Constitutional Due Process is limited to insuring that he himself is represented by competent counsel as he forgets, misrepresents, misleads, mis-construes, and falsifies his way through the halls of justice.
Jeff Sessions does not represent America or American justice. The majority of American voters who did not want the Trump debacle in the first place still have the power to use the system to eventually restore decency, reasonableness, compassion, and integrity to American Government and to send the “Trump White Nationalist carpetbaggers” packing. The only question is whether or not we are up to the task!
“For more than five hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sat in a hearing room on Capitol Hill this month, fending off inquiries on Washington’s two favorite topics: President Trump and Russia.
But legislators spent little time asking Sessions about the dramatic and controversial changes in policy he has made since taking over the top law enforcement job in the United States nine months ago.
From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views — moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.
Sessions has implemented a new charging and sentencing policy that calls for prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible, even if that might meanminority defendants face stiff, mandatory minimum penalties. He has defended the president’s travel ban and tried to strip funding from cities with policies he considers too friendly toward undocumented immigrants.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Nov. 14. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Sessions has even adjusted the department’s legal stances in cases involving voting rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a way that advocates warn might disenfranchise poor minorities and give certain religious people a license to discriminate.
Supporters and critics say the attorney general has been among the most effective of the Cabinet secretaries — implementing Trump’s conservative policy agenda even as the president publicly and privately toys with firing him over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia case.
. . . .
In meetings with top Justice Department officials about terrorist suspects, Sessions often has a particular question: Where is the person from? When officials tell him a suspect was born and lives in the United States, he typically has a follow-up: To what country does his family trace its lineage?
While there are reasons to want to know that information, some officials familiar with the inquiries said the questions struck them as revealing that Sessions harbors an innate suspicion about people from certain ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement, “The Attorney General asks lots of relevant questions in these classified briefings.”
Sessions, unlike past attorneys general, has been especially aggressive on immigration. He served as the public face of the administration’s rolling back of a program that granted a reprieve from deportation to people who had come here without documentation as children, and he directed federal prosecutors to make illegal-immigration cases a higher priority. The attorney general has long held the view that the United States should even reduce the number of those immigrating here legally.
In an interview with Breitbart News in 2015, then-Sen. Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke favorably of a 1924 law that excluded all immigrants from Asia and set strict caps on others.
“When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy and it slowed down immigration significantly,” Sessions said. “We then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”
Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the Obama administration who now works as chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Sessions seems to harbor an “unwillingness to recognize the history of this country is rooted in immigration.”
“On issue after issue, it’s very easy to see what his worldview is of what this country is and who belongs in this country,” she said, adding that his view is “distinctly anti-immigrant.”
Those on the other side of the aisle, however, say they welcome the changes Sessions has made at the Justice Department.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for moderating levels of immigration, said she would give the attorney general an “A-plus” for his work in the area, especially for his crackdown on “sanctuary cities,” his push to hire more immigration judges and his focus on the MS-13 gang.
“He was able to hit the ground running because he has so much expertise already in immigration enforcement and related public safety issues and the constitutional issues, so he’s accomplished a lot in a very short time,” Vaughan said.”
Read the compete article, which deals with much more than immigration, at the link.
Immigrants, refugees, immigration advocates, and career civil servants involved in immigration at the DOJ seems to be “star-crossed.” After decades of relative indifference to the importance of immigration, an Attorney General finally shows up who makes it his highest priority.
Only problem is that he’s a committed xenophobe and White Nationalist whose largely false and exaggerated narrative on immigration comes right from the alt-right restrictionist playbook and harks back to the Jim Crow era of the American South — only this time with Hispanics and Muslims as the primary targets.
In any “normal” American business, obsession with tracing back lineage of someone’s family would be prima facie evidence of prohibited “national origins discrimination.” But, for Gonzo, it’s just another day at the office.
Notwithstanding his less than stellar performances before Congress and that he’s fallen off Trump’s “A-Team” (notwithstanding probably doing more to deconstruct the Constitution and “Good Government” than any other cabinet officer), he’s unlikely to be going anywhere soon. So the damage will continue to add up for the foreseeable future. It’s not like Senator Liz Warren and others didn’t try to warn America about this dude!
Meanwhile, perhaps not to be outdone, over at the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is proceeding to deconstruct the Career Foreign Service and reduce the Stated Department and our Diplomatic Corps to “administrative roadkill.” You can read about that debacle in this NY Times article:
Less than a year into his presidency, Donald Trump is moving swiftly to reshape the nation’s immigration system in more concrete ways, curtailing illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border and sending a chill throughout Central America.
In a stark reversal from the Obama era, the administration has ramped up round-ups of undocumented immigrants regardless of age or criminal history, expanded detention space and stepped up workplace raids. Officials have also restricted the number of refugees allowed into the country while pushing to speed the deportation cases of hundreds of thousands of immigrants awaiting legal decisions.
Taken together, the policy changes have put the border wall debate on the backburner, advocates on both sides of the issue said.
“Expanded border barriers—whether you call them walls or something else—are not priority,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. that supports tighter controls on immigration.
A worker chats with residents at a newly built section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 26, 2017. JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ/REUTERS
“There’s no question the president has changed the tone of the debate and that caused a huge drop in illegal crossings,” Krikorian told Newsweek.
To be sure, the border wall has been bogged down by political obstacles, including the fact that Congress has not appropriated funds to build it. But the shifting sentiment is striking given how central the border wall was to Trump’s political support in last year’s presidential campaign. Its mere mention was an applause line at rallies and Trump himself said it was key to stemming the flow of illegal immigration.
But since his January inauguration, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border have dipped, according to the most recent data from Customs and Border Protection. Agents apprehended 31,582 undocumented immigrants at the border in January, compared to 22,293 in August, the latest available data. April saw the year’s low, with just 11,125 apprehensions.
Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at The Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization, said news of the administration’s actions is spreading through Central America and discouraging crossings. At the same time, a climate of fear in the United States is gripping undocumented immigrant communities.
“People are avoiding going outside to get their groceries. They have friends to come and do that for them,” Isacson said. “They’re missing a lot of work when they learn that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is in the area and kids are not going to school as much. There’s real fear there.”
Indeed, the immigration overhaul has come so fast that the ranks of federal immigration judges are pushing back on some elements. At issue are the administration’s plans to impose “numeric perfomance standards” on judges deciding deportation cases.
The White House has said the quotas are necessary to help reduce a backlog of more than 600,000 cases, but judges say the standards will hamstring their ability to decide complex, life-and-death cases.
“[It’s] completely at odds with the kind of independence a judge needs,” Dana Leigh Marks, a spokesperson for the National Association of Immigration Judges and a federal immigration judge for more than 30 years, told Newsweek.”
Read the complete article at the link.
Nolan Rappaport reminds me that he predicted that cutting off the “home free magnet” in the interior would have a dramatic deterrent effect on illegal migration.
On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether having a system that relies on largely random enforcement to spread a climate of fear and loathing among a community of generally law-abiding, productive migrants, intertwined with citizens and legal residents, who are part of our communities is something that we’ll ultimately be proud of as a nation.
At a recent Center for Immigration Studies panel discussion on the backlog, Judge Larry Burman said, “I cannot give you a merits hearing on my docket unless I take another case off. My docket is full through 2020, and I was instructed by my assistant chief immigration judge not to set any cases past 2020.”
By the end of September 2016, the backlog was up to 516,031 cases. A year later, it had grown to 629,051.
. . . .
If Trump relies on hiring more IJs to deal with the backlog crisis, his enforcement program will be a dismal failure.
His only viable alternative is to reduce the size of the immigration court’s docket, which he can do by promulgating regulations making IJ hearings unavailable to aliens whose cases can be handled in expedited removal proceedings.
He seems to have had this in mind when he directed DHS to use expedited removal proceedings to the full extent authorized by law, which would include most of the undocumented aliens in the United States who were not lawfully admitted, unless they can establish that they have been here for two years.
In expedited removal proceedings, which are conducted by immigration officers, aliens can be deported without IJ hearings unless they have a credible fear of persecution. If they establish a credible fear of persecution, they are entitled to an asylum hearing before an IJ.
But would the courts stop him?”
Go on over to The Hill at the link to read Nolan’s complete article.
Expedited removal is the wrong solution to the Immigration Court backlog!
As I have noted in recent blogs, recent studies show that Immigration Court hearings area already falling substantially short of providing real due process because of lack of available counsel and overuse of immigration detention. Expedited removal would aggravate that problem tenfold.
Expedited removal couldn’t begin to solve the current backlog problems because the vast majority of the estimated 11 million individuals already here have been here for more than two years and can prove it, most from Government records. Indeed, I’d wager that the vast majority of individuals in Removal Proceedings in U.S. Immigration Court have had their cases pending for two or more years.
The problems in Immigration Court were caused by “Aimless Docket Reshuffling”by the last three Administrations emanating from undue political influence from the Department of Justice, DHS, and the White House. Only an independent Immigration Court that places control of the dockets in individual Immigration Judges, where it belongs, can address those problems.
The answer to hiring problems resulting from poor management and political hiring from the DOJ is certainly not to “get rid of” any existing U.S. Immigration Judges. Whether the hiring was done properly or not, there is no reason to believe that any of the currently sitting local U.S. Immigration Judges did anything wrong or participated in the hiring process other than by applying for the jobs. The system needs all the experienced judges it currently has.
The problem of inconsistency will only be solved by having an independent BIA that acts in the manner of an independent appellate court, cracking down on those judges who are not correctly applying legal standards. That’s how all other court systems address consistency issues — through precedent and independent appellate review. Numerous examples have been documented of Immigration Judges in courts like Atlanta, Stewart, and Charlotte, to name three of the most notorious ones, improperly denying asylum claims and mistreating asylum applicants. The BIA has failed to function in a proper, independent manner ever since the “Ashcroft Purge.” The only way to get it doing its job is by creating true judicial independence.
“Haste makes waste” is never the right solution! It’s been done in the past and each time has resulted in increased backlogs and, more importantly, serious lapses in due process.
The docket does need to be trimmed. The Obama Administration was at least starting the process by a more widespread use of prosecutorial discretion or “PD” as in all other major law enforcement prosecutorial offices. Most of the individuals currently in the country without status are assets to the country, who have built up substantial equities, and do not belong in removal proceedings. No system can function with the type of unregulated, irrational, “gonzo” enforcement this Administration is pursuing.
The reasonable solution is to do what is necessary to build a well-functioning system that provides due process efficiently, as it is supposed to do.The elements are reasonable access to lawyers for everyone in proceedings, reducing expensive, wasteful, and fundamentally unfair use of detention, better merit hiring and training procedures for Immigration Judges, modern technology, better use of prosecutorial discretion by the DHS, legislation to grant legal status to law-abiding productive individuals currently present in the US without status, and a truly independent judicial system that can develop in the way judicial systems are supposed to — without political meddling and without more “haste makes waste” schemes like “expedited removal!”
EOIR recently announced its intent to subject immigration judges to tiered performance reviews. Most notably, EOIR plans to impose case completion quotas on the individual judges. The American Bar Association, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) were among the many organizations to express their strong objection to the proposal.
Immigration judges have always been exempt from the tiered reviews that other Department of Justice attorneys undergo each year. The Office of the Chief Immigration Judge deserves credit for understanding that it is not possible to impose any type of review criteria without impeding on judges’ neutrality and independence. To begin with, how many cases should a judge complete in a given period of time? Are the judges with the most completions affording due process to the respondents? Are they identifying all of the issues, spending enough time reviewing the records, and giving proper consideration and analysis to the facts and the law? Do their decisions provide sufficient detail for meaningful review? Are those at the other end of the scale completing less cases because they are working less hard, or to the contrary, because they are delving deeper into the issues and crafting more detailed and sophisticated decisions? Or is it because they are granting more continuances out of a sense of fairness to the parties, or to allow further development of the record in order to allow for a more informed decision? And regardless of the reasons, might they be prejudicing some respondents by delaying their day in court? How would management turn all of these factors into an objective grade?
In terms of completion quotas, all cases are not equal. A respondent who has no relief and simply wants to depart can have his or her case completed in minutes, whereas a respondent seeking relief in New York will presently be scheduled for a merits hearing in the Spring of 2020, at which time the lengthy testimony of multiple witnesses, disputes over the admissibility of evidence, the need to wait for DHS to adjudicate pending petitions for relief, etc. might result in months or even years of additional continuances. Decisions in some cases are delivered orally in just a few sentences; others require 25 written pages. Yet all count the same in EOIR’s completion ledger.
I am pretty certain that the move for tiered review is not coming from the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge, but from higher up – either the new Acting Director of EOIR, or Main Justice. Even under more liberal administrations, the Department of Justice never really understood the IJs, who are the only judges within a predominantly enforcement-minded department. The need for neutrality and fairness is further lost on the present Attorney General, who has made his anti-immigrant agenda clear. IJs are in an interesting position: they represent the Attorney General (i.e. are acting as the AG’s surrogates, where the statute delegates authority to make determinations or grant relief to the AG). Yet in spite of such posture, IJs often reach decisions that are at odds with the AG’s own views. For example, does Jeff Sessions, who last month issued a memo allowing discrimination against LGBTQ individuals under the guise of protecting the discriminators’ “religious liberty,”, approve of his immigration judges granting asylum claims based on sexual orientation or sexual identity? In light of Sessions’ recent charges of widespread asylum fraud, does he agree with his judges’ high asylum grant rates?
It is probably this tension that provides the impetus for the Department’s present proposal. The tiered criteria and completion quotas are likely designed to pressure judges with more liberal approaches into issuing more removal orders. They would also provide the department with a basis to take punitive action against judges who resist such pressures. Given the high percentage of immigration judges who are retirement eligible, the department might be counting on judges targeted under the new review criteria to simply retire, allowing them to be replaced with more enforcement-minded jurists.
It should be noted that the changes are at this point proposals. The immigration judge corps is represented by a very effective union. As the present leadership within the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge is fair minded, there is hope that reason will prevail. However, in a worst-case scenario in which the plan is implemented, what should immigration judges do?
Having worked both as an IJ and a BIA staff attorney subjected to both quotas and tiered review, I can state that there are big differences. BIA staff attorneys draft decisions that Board members then have to approve, whereas immigration judges are in complete control of the case outcome. Furthermore, unlike BIA attorneys who are dealing with records of completed decisions, immigration judges are conducting proceedings in which the protection of due process must be safeguarded above all, as the Chief Immigration Judge pointed out in her July 31, 2017 memo on continuances. Circuit courts are not going to excuse due process violations because immigration judges have to meet arbitrary completion goals.
Although the intent may be to create more removal orders, completion quotas can prove to be a two-edged sword. Should the ICE attorney not have the file at the first Master Calendar hearing, or should they lack a certified copy of the conviction record or proof of service of the NTA, will the IJ feel compelled to terminate proceedings (which constitutes a completion) rather than grant the government a continuance? Many hearings turn on credibility findings, but credibility findings take time to get right. The Second Circuit, for example, has held that an immigration judge should probe for additional details to clear up doubts about credibility.1 As Deborah Anker has pointed out in her Law of Asylum in the United States, “Federal courts have overturned adverse credibility findings where an immigration judge has interrupted an applicant repeatedly, rushed the hearing, and then criticized an applicant’s testimony for lacking specificity.”2 But won’t completion quotas likely encourage exactly such prohibited behavior? In order to avoid reversal on appeal, judges who are forced to rush or curtail hearings will may need to give the benefit of the doubt to respondents and find them credible. Additionally, judges may no longer be able to continue cases to allow DHS to subject documents to forensic examination, or to conduct consular investigations in the applicants’ home countries. Under pressure to complete cases, judges may be forced to credit witness affidavits as opposed to allowing DHS to subject those witnesses to cross-examination.
For the above reasons, it is not impossible that completion quotas might actually result in more grants of relief and terminations of proceedings, resulting in fewer removal orders. Like so many of the poorly thought out policies of the current administration seeking to erode individual protections, completion quotas (if implemented) may just be the latest that will fail to achieve its intended result. The proposal provides further evidence of the need for a truly independent immigration court.
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.
1. Yang v. Board of Immigration Appeals, 440 F.3d 72, 74 (2d Cir. 2006).
2. Anker, Law of Asylum in the United States (2017 Edition) at 199.
Thanks, Jeffrey! Performance standards for Immigration Judges are a complete waste of time, an improper intrusion into judicial independence, and a diversion of time and energy from solving the many real problems facing this system — most of which relate to the DOJ and the untenable administrative structure of the U.S. Immigration Courts, not the individual IJs.
“Washington (CNN)One of the Trump administration’s top immigration policy staffers is leaving the Department of Homeland Security to join the attorney general’s office at the Department of Justice — reuniting him with Jeff Sessions.
Gene Hamilton, a senior counselor to the Homeland Security secretary since January and top immigration policy expert for the administration, confirmed the move to CNN.
Hamilton’s departure will be a blow to Homeland Security’s policy shop, sources familiar with the situation said. The agency is tasked with managing the vast majority of the administration’s immigration portfolio.
But the move will reunite Hamilton, a former Sessions staffer, with the Cabinet’s strongest immigration policy hardliner, an early supporter of President Donald Trump who has been a key proponent of his aggressive immigration agenda from his perch at DOJ.
Hamilton was a general counsel for Sessions on Capitol Hill and will work directly with the attorney general in his new role. The switch is tentatively expected to begin next week, the sources said.
. . . .
While the move would take Hamilton out of the development of DHS immigration policies, where the secretary’s office oversees components including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, DOJ under Sessions has been taking a stronger role in immigration policy during this administration.
Sessions himself remains a thought leader in the administration on the tough immigration agenda of the President, and DOJ manages the nation’s Immigration courts.
Justice also is charged with representing the government in litigation — which would include all the sanctuary cities litigation, DACA lawsuits and ongoing travel ban litigation.“
Read Tal’s complete report at the link.
With the DOJ abandoning the last pretenses of objectivity and assuming the “point position” on the Administration’s xenophobic anti-immigrant agenda, how could Immigration Courts held “captive” within the DOJ possibly provide individuals with the “fair and unbiased decision-making” required by the Due Process Clause of our Constitution? Only an independent Article I Court can save this deeply compromised system!
ATTORNEY GENERAL Jeff Sessions decried the state of the immigration courts in remarks Oct. 12 before the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, lamenting “rampant abuse and fraud” in asylum applications. As part of Mr. Sessions’s push for an overhaul of the immigration system, the department also plans to begin evaluating immigration judges on the basis of how many cases they resolve. This proposal would do little to fix the United States’ backlogged immigration courts and much to undermine their integrity.
The Trump administration hinted at the plan in a wish list of immigration policies, alongside commitments to constructing President Trump’s promised border wall and withholding federal grants from so-called sanctuary cities. According to reporting by The Post, government documents show that the Justice Department “intends to implement numeric performance standards to evaluate Judge performance.” Such a metric would probably involve assessing judges based on how many cases they complete or how quickly they decide them — a plan that the National Association of Immigration Judges has called a “death knell for judicial independence.”
Unlike other federal judges, immigration judges are technically Justice Department employees. Currently, the collective bargaining agreement between Justice and the judges’ association forbids evaluating judges based on quotas. But the association says the Executive Office of Immigration Review is working now to remove that language from the contract.”
Note the “progression” by the DOJ: From “performance evaluations would interfere with judicial independence,” to “performance evaluations won’t involve production quotas,” to “judges are just ‘oyster shuckers in robes!'”
Performance evaluations by the DOJ are just as inappropriate and unnecessary for U.S. Immigration Judges now as they were back in 1983 when EOIR was established. The only difference is the plan by Sessions and his politico cronies to co-opt the U.S. Immigration Courts and use them as an enforcement tool in his xenophobic crusade against immigrants, asylum seekers, due process, and the American justice system.
I actually was part of the NAIJ “negotiating team” that negotiated the current procedures and standards for judicial performance evaluations. We were assured over and over by “EOIR Management” that “case quotas” were not part of the plan and that “management recognized” the need for decisional independence in the Immigration Judge corps.
HERE ARE TWO POSITION PAPERS PREPARED BY THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF IMMIGRATION JUDGES (“NAIJ”) THE COLLECTIVE BARGAINING ORGANIZATION THAT REPRESENTS ALL U.S. IMMIGRATION JUDGES (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a Retired Member of the NAIJ)
NAIJ HAS GRAVE CONCERNS REGARDING IMPLEMENTATION OF QUOTAS ON IMMIGRATION JUDGE PERFORMANCE REVIEWS, October 18, 2017
“The imposition of quotas or deadlines on judges can impede justice and due process. For example, a respondent must be given a “reasonable opportunity” to examine and present evidence. Section 240(b) (4) (B) of the Act. Given that most respondents do not speak English as their primary language and much evidence has to be obtained from other countries, imposing a time frame for completion of cases interferes with a judge’s ability to assure that a respondent’s rights are respected.
Not only will individuals who appear in removal proceedings potentially suffer adverse consequences, but also the public’s interest in a fair, impartial and transparent tribunal will be jeopardized by implementation of such standards.
While it cannot be denied that additional resources are desperately needed immediately, resources alone cannot solve the persistent problems facing our Immigration Courts. The problems highlighted by the response to the recent “surge” underscores the need to remove the Immigration Court from the political sphere of a law enforcement agency and assure its judicial independence. Structural reform can no longer be put on the back burner. Since the 1981 Select Commission on Immigration, the idea of creating an Article I court, similar to the U.S. Tax Court, has been advanced.xvi In the intervening years, a strong consensus has formed supporting this structural change.xvii For years experts debated the wisdom of far-reaching restructuring of the Immigration Court system. Now “[m]ost immigration judges and attorneys agree the long term solution to the problem is to restructure the immigration court
The time has come to undertake structural reform of the Immigration Courts. It is apparent that until far-reaching changes are made, the problems which have plagued our tribunals for decades will persist. For years NAIJ has advocated establishment of an Article I court. We cannot expect a different outcome unless we change our approach to the persistent problems facing our court system. Acting now will be cost effective and will improve the speed, efficiency and fairness of the process we afford to the public we serve. Our tribunals are often the only face of the United States justice system that these foreign born individuals experience, and it must properly reflect the principles upon which our country was founded. Action is needed now on this urgent priority for the Immigration Courts. It is time to stop the cycle of overlooking this important component of the immigration enforcement system – it will be a positive step for enforcement, due process and humanitarian treatment of all respondents in our proceedings.
NAIJ CONCERNS RE QUOTAS
AILA Doc. No 17102062. (Posted 10/20/17)
We realize that immediate action is needed, and that a structural overhaul and creation of an Article I Court, while the best and only durable solution, may not be feasible right now. However, Congress can act easily and swiftly resolve this problem through a simple amendment to the civil service statute on performance reviews. . Recognizing that performance evaluations are antithetical to judicial independence, Congress exempted Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) from performance appraisals and ratings by including them in the list of occupations exempt from performance reviews in 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2)(D). This provision lists ALJs as one of eight categories (A through H) of employees who are excluded from the requirement of performance appraisals and ratings.xix To provide that same exemption to Immigration Judges, all that would be needed is an amendment to 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2) which would add a new paragraph (I) listing Immigration Judges in that list of exempt employees.
We urge you to take this important step to protect judicial independence at the Immigration Courts by enacting legislation as described above.
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION, CONTACT
THE HONORABLE A. ASHLEY TABADDOR, PRESIDENT NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF IMMIGRATION JUDGES C/o Immigration Court
606 S. Olive Street, 15th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90014 (310)709-3580 firstname.lastname@example.org www.naij-usa.org
Threat to Due Process and Judicial Independence Caused by Performance Quotas on Immigration Judges
“15) If EOIR is successful in tying case completion quotas to judge performance evaluations, it could be the death knell for judicial independence in the Immigration Courts. Judges can face potential termination for good faith legal decisions of which their supervisors do not approve.
16) In addition, Circuit Courts will be severely adversely impacted and we will simply be repeating history which has proven to be disastrous. One need only remember the lasting impact of Attorney General Ashcroft’s “streamlining” initiative at the Board of Immigration Appeals.
17) The United States Government Accountability Office issued its report entitled “IMMIGRATION COURTS-Actions Needed to Reduce Case Backlog and Address Long-Standing Management and Operational Challenges Report to Congressional Requesters” in June 2017, GAO-17-438, (GAO Report). This GAO Report contains a section entitled, “Comprehensive Performance Assessment Could Help EOIR Identify Effective Management Approaches to Address the Case Backlog;” however, nowhere is the suggestion made that numerical or time based criteria be added to performance evaluations for immigration judges. AILA Doc. No 17102061. (Posted 10/20/17)
18) There is no reason for the agency to have production and quantity based measures tied to judge performance reviews. The current court backlog cannot be attributed to a lack of Immigration Judge productivity. In fact, the GAO report shows that Immigration Judge related continuances have decreased (down 2 percent) in the last ten years. GAO Report at 124. The same report shows that continuances due to “operational factors” and details of Immigration Judges were up 149% and 112%, respectively. GAO Report at 131, 133. These continuances, where Judges were forced to reset cases that were near completion in order to address cases that were priorities of various administrations, have a much greater impact on case completion rates. 19) The imposition of quotas or deadlines on judges can impede justice and due process. For example, a respondent must be given a “reasonable opportunity” to examine and present evidence. Section 240(b) (4) (B) of the Act. Given that most respondents do not speak English as their primary language and much evidence has to be obtained from other countries, imposing a time frame for completion of cases interferes with a judge’s ability to assure that a respondent’s rights are respected.”
Read this entire memorandum at the following link:
Folks, Due Process is “on the run” at the U.S. Immigration Courts. If Congress doesn’t take at least some corrective action to protect quasi-judicial independence, our U.S. Immigration Courts will no longer be able to provide fair and impartial adjudication in accordance with Constitutional requirements. Today, the statutory and Constitutional rights of immigrants are under attack. Tomorrow it could be YOUR Constitutional rights. Who is going to speak up for YOUR RIGHTS if YOU are indifferent to the rights of others?
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!