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.
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!
“The Trump administration is taking steps to impose “numeric performance standards” on federal immigration judges, drawing a sharp rebuke from judges who say production quotas or similar measures will threaten judicial independence, as well as their ability to decide life-or-death deportation cases.
The White House says it aims to reduce an “enormous” backlog of 600,000 cases, triple the number in 2009, that cripples its ability to deport immigrants as President Trump mandated in January.
The National Association of Immigration Judges called the move unprecedented and says it will be the “death knell for judicial independence” in courts where immigrants such as political dissidents, women fleeing violence and children plead their cases to stay in the United States.
“That is a huge, huge, huge encroachment on judicial independence,” said Dana Leigh Marks, spokeswoman and former president of the association and a judge for more than 30 years. “It’s trying to turn immigration judges into assembly-line workers.”
The White House tucked its proposal — a six-word statement saying it wants to “establish performance metrics for immigration judges” — into a broader package of immigration reforms it rolled out Sunday night.
But other documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the Justice Department “intends to implement numeric performance standards to evaluate Judge performance.”
The Justice Department, which runs the courts through the Executive Office for Immigration Review, declined to comment or otherwise provide details about the numeric standards.
The Justice Department has expressed concern about the backlog and discouraged judges from letting cases drag on too long, though it has insisted that they decide the cases fairly and follow due process. On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed concern that false asylum cases are clogging up the courts.
The judges’ union says its current contract language prevents the government from rating them based on the number of cases they complete or the time it takes to decide them.
But now, they say, the department is trying to rescind that language, and advocates say it could violate a federal regulation that requires judges to “exercise their independent judgment and discretion” when deciding cases.
Advocates and immigration lawyers say imposing numerical expectations on judges unfairly faults them for the massive backlog. Successive administrations have expanded immigration enforcement without giving the courts enough money or judges to decide cases in a timely way, they say. An average case for a non-detained immigrant can drag on for more than two years, though some last much longer.
“Immigration judges should have one goal and that goal should be the fair adjudication of cases,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services and advocacy to immigrants nationwide. “That’s the only metric that should count.”
Immigration lawyers say the proposed standards risk adding to disadvantages immigrants already face in immigration courts. Most defendants do not speak English as their first language if at all, are not entitled to lawyers at the government’s expense, and thousands end up trying to defend themselves.
Often immigrants are jailed and given hearings in remote locations, such as rural Georgia or Upstate New York, which makes it difficult to gather records and witnesses needed to bring a case.
“People’s lives are at risk in immigration court cases, and to force judges to complete cases under a rapid time frame is going to undermine the ability of those judges to make careful, well thought-out decisions,” said Gregory Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which has 15,000 members.
Traditional federal judges are not subject to quotas.
The rare public dispute between the immigration judges and the Justice Department comes as the Trump administration is demanding a commitment to increased enforcement and other immigration restrictions in exchange for legal status for 690,000 young undocumented immigrants who, until recently, were protected from deportation under an Obama-era program. Sessions announced the end of the program last month, and the young immigrants will start to lose their work permits and other protections in March.
In January, Trump issued a slate of executive orders that sought to crack down on immigration. He revoked President Barack Obama’s limits on enforcement and effectively exposed all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to arrest.
On Sunday, Trump also called for more immigration-enforcement lawyers and more detention beds, which would further increase the caseloads of the courts.
The big stories and commentary shaping the day.
He is also planning to seek congressional funding for an additional 370 immigration judges, which would more than double the current number.
Immigration arrests are up more than 40 percent since Trump took office, and deportation orders are also rising. From Feb. 1 to August 31, judges have issued 88,383 rulings, and in the majority of cases — 69,160 — immigrants were deported or ordered to voluntarily leave the country, a 36 percent increase over the corresponding period in 2016.
The immigration courts have clamored for greater independence from the Justice Department for years and also have sought greater control over their budget. They have long complained about a lack of funding, burnout rates that rival that of prison wardens, and caseloads exceeding 2,000 each. Some judges are scheduling cases into 2022.
On Sunday, Sessions — who appoints the immigration judges and is the court’s highest authority — called the White House’s broad immigration proposals “reasonable.”
“If followed, it will produce an immigration system with integrity and one in which we can take pride,” he said.”
Will the stunningly xenophobic “Gonzo Apocalypto” get away with his lawless plan to strip migrants of the last vestiges of their already restricted Constitutional rights to due process? Or, will the Article III Courts step in, assert themselves, insist on due process and fair and impartial adjudication in Immigration Court, and throw the already staggering Immigration Court System into complete collapse, thereby stopping the “Removal Railway?”
The showdown is coming. I think the eventual outcome is “too close to call.” So far, Sessions is well on his way to co-opting the Immigration Court as just another “whistle stop on the Removal Railway!”
The current backlog has multiple causes: 1) failure of Congress and the DOJ to properly fund and staff the U.S. Immigration Courts; 2) poor enforcement strategies by DHS resulting in too many “low priority” cases on the dockets; 3) often politicized, always changing, sometimes conflicting “case priorities and goals” established by DOJ and EOIR; 4) lack of authority for Immigration Judges to control their own dockets; 5) outdated technology resulting in a “paper heavy” system where documents are often misfiled or missing from the record when needed by the Judges; and 6) “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” caused by moving cases around to fit DHS Enforcement priorities and ill-conceived and poorly planned details of Immigration Judges away from their normal dockets. “Productivity,” which consistently far exceeds the “optimal” 500 completions per Judge annually (currently approximately 770 per Judge) is not one of the primary factors causing the backlog.
Overall, the current backlog is the product of mismanagement of the Immigration Courts by the DOJ spanning multiple Administrations. No wonder the politos at the Sessions DOJ are trying to shift blame to the Immigration Judges, hapless migrants struggling to achieve justice in an “intentionally user unfriendly system,” and stressed out private attorneys, many serving pro bono or for minimal compensation. How would YOU like to be a migrant fighting for your life in a so-called “court system” beholden to Jeff Sessions?
We’re starting to look pretty “Third World.” Sessions and the rest of the “Trump Gang” operate much like corrupt Government officials in “Third World” countries where the rulers control the courts, manipulation of the justice system for political ends is SOP, and claims to aspire to “fairness” ring hollow.
As part of a joint six-month investigation, NBC-owned television stations across the country interviewed retired and current immigration judges, some of whom said the backlog is threatening to overwhelm the court
By Chris Glorioso, Dave Manney, Erica Jorgensen and Evan Stulberger
Documents from the Trump administration show the president’s plan to ship more immigration judges for temporary assignments in border states is encountering a fundamental problem: there isn’t enough work for all the new judges to do.
According to an assessment of “Surge Hearing Locations,” dated April 4, 2017, the Department of Justice found six of the 17 immigration courts receiving transferred judges could not give those judges enough work to support a full docket.
INVESTIGATIVE’Phantom’ Judges Cause Confusion in NYC Immigration Court
In the assessment and supporting documents, DOJ staffers wrote about an immigration court in Karnes, Texas, where there was “concern regarding the lack of filings to sustain details from other courts”
Immigration: Crisis in the Courts
An overview on how immigration judges are struggling with a punishing backlog that in many cities is pushing cases far into the future, slowing deportations and leaving families in limbo.
The same assessment says another court in Texas’s Prairieland Detention Center “is not receiving enough cases to truly fill a docket or even come close to it.”
At the court inside Texas’s Dilly Family Residential Center, DOJ staffers wrote “the one judge detailed there is not occupied.”
At New Mexico’s Cibola County Detention Center, DOJ staffers found the caseload “has not been sufficient to keep the two immigration judges assigned to this docket occupied.”
Staffers also noted two empty courtrooms at New Mexico’s Otero immigration facility — and concluded there were “insufficient caseloads for further deployments.”
Scheduling records show the Justice Department repeatedly assigned five transferred judges to the immigration court in Louisiana’s LaSalle Detention Facility, even though an assessment of the court found “at this time there is not enough work for five judges. There is enough work for a reasonable docket and three judges.”
The report went on to conclude that inefficient transferring of detainees often means “there is very little work for a detailed judge to complete.”
In most cases, the transferred judges spend two weeks to a month hearing cases in out-of-state court.
The Department of Justice declined to comment for this story, but in response to a previous inquiry by Politico, an agency spokesman said “After the initial deployment, an assessment was done to determine appropriate locations to increase the adjudication of immigration court cases without compromising due process.”
While transferred judges may have had light workloads when they arrived in some of the border state courts, there is evidence the dockets they left behind suffered in their home courts.
A joint analysis by the News 4 I-Team and Telemundo 47 Investiga found case adjournments in New York City’s immigration court went up 276 percent — from an average of 139 adjournments in the three months before the judge transfers began, to 522 in the three months after judge transfers began.
Despite that, the Trump administration has increased its target from 50 judge reassignments, to at least 137 nationwide. Nineteen New York City immigration judges — more than half of the city’s 32-judge staff – participated in the temporary transfer program.
Olga Byrne, an advocate for refugees at Human Rights First, a nonprofit that represents asylum-seekers in court, said immigration attorneys at her organization have noticed the spike in adjournments and questioned whether judicial assignments border state assignments are worth the trouble.
“We’ve been in touch with a couple of judges who have expressed a lot of frustration about being sent to a detention center where they could take a long lunch break,” said Byrne. “They had only a few cases to consider for a whole week and yet they had to defer hundreds of cases from their docket in their home court.”
But it is clear the Trump Administration knew its decision to deploy more judges to border states would likely have negative impacts on dockets those judges leave behind in their home states.
In response to questions from U.S. Senate staffers, a DOJ memo concedes that “it is likely that the case backlog will increase for the locations from which an Immigration Judge is assigned.”
In New York City alone, there are more than 82,000 immigrants waiting for a court hearing. The average wait time is north of two and a half years. Nationwide, the immigration case backlog stands at more than 617,000.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D – Upper Manhattan), who came to America as an undocumented immigrant, said he fears the Trump administration is over-staffing border state courts to rapidly deport current border-crossers, while ignoring the population of non-detained immigrants who’ve been living and working in America’s big cities, hoping for a shot at citizenship for years.
“By shifting judges to the border, they are in fact maybe predicting that there will be lots of cases before them in those jurisdictions,” Espaillat said. “I am concerned this is part of a greater effort to put together a deportation machine – and proceed to arrest and deport thousands of people who are undocumented.”
This isn’t the first time a presidential initiative has been criticized for mucking up immigration court schedules and exacerbating the nationwide case backlog.
During the Obama Administration, the Justice Department launched an effort to prioritize court hearings for unaccompanied minors who enter the country illegally.
Byrne says that too was a political decision which negatively impacted the court’s ability to handle thousands of older cases languishing in the backlog.
“It’s not a new thing that they are basically fulfilling political objectives with the way that the immigration court dockets are managed,” Byrne said. “I think we should be equally critical of both [the Trump and Obama administrations] for using the immigration court to fulfill political objectives rather than focusing on making that court system work well and efficiently.”
Source: I-Team: Immigration Judges Sent to Courts With ‘Very Little Work’ – NBC New York http://www.nbcnewyork.com/investigations/Immigration-Court-New-York-Judge-Investigation-448498463.html#ixzz4uXiMR2xJ
Follow us: @nbcnewyork on Twitter | NBCNewYork on Facebook“
To put this in context, during this massive abuse of the US Immigration Courts at the direction of Sessions and his incompetent politicos at the DOJ, the Chief Immigration Judge issued the notorious “Continuance Policy.” That document not not very subtilely implied that unjustified continuance requests by private attorneys (all of them overburdened by the effects of ADR, and many working on a pro bono or “low bono” basis) and laxity in granting continuances by overwhelmed and demoralized U.S. Immigration Judges were major contributing factors in increasing backlogs. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In fact, conscientious Immigration Judges and dedicated private attorneys are the only ones trying to make this broken system work and to maintain at least a semblance of due process. Their main obstacles: improper politically-motivated interference from the DOJ and poor administration and failure to stand up to the politicos by out of touch bureaucrats at EOIR Headquarters in Falls Church who are afraid to “blow the whistle”because they value their jobs over due process.
What kind of incompetents would draw the bulk of unneeded judicial details from what are known to be the most seriously backlogged Immigration Courts in the US, such as New York and Arlington? What type of incompetents would “study” the impact and need for the details after the fact, rather than carefully planning in advance? Assuming they were necessary (which they weren’t) why weren’t judicial details drawn from among the Assistant Chief Immigration Judges in Falls Church Headquarters who are never assigned actual cases? They, actually have time on their hands. And why does a system in crisis with inept management have highly-paid bureaucratic administrators like the ACIJs who never do any real judging? What makes a person a “judge”if he or she never “judges” anything?
Yes, as I’ve stated before, the Obama Administration enforcement policies and political interference from the Obama DOJ helped drive the backlogs to new heights. But, after taking over an obviously broken system, rather than doing the right thing and fixing the Immigration Courts with bipartisan legislation to create an independent Immigration Court System, with adequate resources, professional court administration, and freedom from political interference in its due process functions, the Trump Administration intentionally made things much, much worse! More judges have resulted in more backlogs because of politicized, incompetent judicial administration and poorly designed enforcement policies at DHS. If that doesn’t tell you something is seriously wrong, what will?
Those of you who have seen Jodie in action know that she is a brilliant, hard-hitting, no holds barred investigative journalist who always gets to the bottom of her story — no matter how little some public officials want the truth to come out! She and her all-star investigative team, including Senior Investigative Platform Manager Rick Yarborough and Photojournalist Editor Stephen Jones, are relentless.
Using her contacts throughout the nation, Jodie shows you what our Government has been trying to hide for years — the ridiculous backlogs and impending failure of one of our nation’s largest, perhaps the largest, Federal Court system! I was stunned and amazed by the amount of technical knowledge and feeling about the human side of this needless national tragedy that Jodie brought to her interview with me.
The judges and staff of the Immigration Court work hard. That’s always been true. But, that has not helped many of the vulnerable individuals caught up in the morass and not always finding the justice that our laws promise them. Similarly, it does not serve the true needs of DHS enforcement to have results determined by the number of pending cases in a particular court, many of which should have long ago been settled by the responsible exercise of prosecutorial discretion as they would have been in almost any other high volume court system in America.
What has happened to the United States Immigration Courts under the control of the U.S.Department of Justice is a sad tale of bureaucratic incompetence, intransigence, inbreeding, improper influence by enforcement authorities, and inability to provide the independent judiciary that can deliver on the court’s forgotten promise of “guaranteeing fairness and due process for all.” This has combined with a disturbing lack of Congressional oversight and reform. How can we clean up this tragic “train wreck” that threatens to topple the entire Federal Court System and to undermine our nation’s Constitution and our ideals?
Over three quarters of U.S counties now have residents in the Immigration Court system! But, even if you aren’t one of them, or a relative, friend, neighbor, employer, teacher, student, employee, patient, customer, or fellow parishioner of one of them, this mess affects you as an American. If this is the way we treat the most vulnerable among us, what’s going to save you when your precious rights are challenged in a U.S. justice system that has lost sight of justice?
Tune in Monday night to find out more about one of “America’s Most Underreported Crises.” Those interested should be able to “live stream” NBC4 News at 6 with the NBC4 app. I assume it will also be available online in the NBC4 app archives under “Investigative Reporting” once the piece has aired.
Part II Of Jodie’s Report, which specifically examines the Baltimore and Arlington Immigration Courts, will air at 11:15 PM tonight.
“Juan Coronilla-Guerrero promised deportation to Mexico would kill him and it did.
On Sept. 12, four armed men burst into a house in San Luis de la Paz in central Mexico looking for the 28-year-old married father. The gunmen went to the bedroom where Coronilla-Guerrero was sleeping with his young son, jammed a pistol to his temple and took him away. “Don’t worry, my love. Don’t worry,” he told his son before disappearing, according to an account in the Austin American-Statesman.
“I knew that if he came back here, they were going to kill him,” Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife told the paper. “That’s what happened.”
Coronilla-Guerrero’s body was found last week on the side of a road 40 minutes away from the house where he had been staying in Central Mexico. The death occurred three months after Coronilla-Guerrero and his family begged a federal judge not to catapult him back over the border for fear of the Mexican gangs they had illegally crossed the border to flee in the first place.
Coronilla-Guerrero’s warnings had apparently been well-founded — his wife (who has not used her first name publicly for safety reasons) — has indicated she believes a gang was responsible for the killing. The violence now serves as a grim reminder of the life facing some immigrants after they’ve been taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and worked through the immigration courts.
The case raised alarms from the start. On March 3, Coronilla-Guerrero was arrested at the Travis County Courthouse. He was in the building to face two misdemeanor charges — marijuana possession and family violence. Although he had already been arrested and deported in 2008, Coronilla-Guerrero made the appearance to address the charges; both he and his wife said the family violence charge was a misunderstanding and Coronilla-Guerrero had not abused his wife.
“He wanted to do the right thing and he appeared at his second court date,” Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife told the Austin American-Statesman. “When he was leaving, immigration agents were waiting for him and took him. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to me, or to his son, because now we don’t even know where he is going to be.”
The arrest, however, triggered larger concerns. In the wake of President Trump’s increased emphasis on immigration control and promises to build a border wall with Mexico, many observers were worried ICE agents would use the criminal justice system as a fishing ground for undocumented defendants. At the time of the arrest, KVUE reported it was the first time federal immigration agents had made an arrest at the courthouse.
“It struck me as extraordinary,” Daniel Betts, Coronilla-Guerrero’s attorney, told the station.
Following his deportation, Coronilla-Guerrero went to live with his wife’s family in San Luis de la Paz while his wife stayed in Texas. Following his death, she returned to Mexico. Local authorities reportedly have not released any information on the death.”
As my friend and former colleague Judge Dana Leigh Marks says, “like trying death penalty cases in traffic court.” We need an independent Article I Immigraton Court to inbsure that the DHS and Sessions (the “real” head of DHS Enforcement) comply with the law and due process!
The stakes are far too high to be entrusted to an administrative court held captive by Jeff Sessions!
Click the above link to see John Yang of PBS interview United States Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks of the U.S. Immigration Court in San Francisco, speaking in her capacity as President of the National Association of Immigration Judges (“NAIJ”).
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a “retiree member” of the NAIJ.
As this interview shows, this problem has been building steadily under the past three Administrations. However, the “gonzo enforcement” policies of the Trump Administration, combined with “ADR” (“Aimless Docket Reschuffling”) caused by poorly planned, and in many cases unneeded, details of Immigration Judges from backlogged “home dockets” to obscure detention centers along the Southern Border in response to Trump’s Executive Orders on enforcement, made worse by constant threats to mindlessly throw DACA individuals and TPS holders into the already overwhelmed system have greatly and unnecessarily aggravated an already bad situation.
Judge Marks points out that nearly 40% of the current U.S. Immigration Judiciary, including all of the most experienced judges, are eligible or nearly eligible to retire. That would mean a whopping 140 new Immigration Judge hires in a short period of time in addition to filling the current approximately 50 vacancies and any other positions that might become available. That adds up to approximately 200 new judicial vacancies, not counting any additional positions that Congress might provide.
No Administration has been able to competently hire that many new judges using a proper merit selection process. Indeed, the last Administration, using a system that could hardly be viewed as ”merit based,” took an astounding average of nearly two years to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Immigration Court! That’s amazing considering that these are administrative judges who do not require Senate confirmation.
The total unsuitability of the U.S. Justice Department to be administering the U.S. Immigration Courts has been demonstrated not only in terns of misuse of the courts for politicized law enforcement objectives, but also in terms of poor planning and stunningly incompetent judicial administration.
We need an independent Article I U.S. Immigration Court, and we need it now!
Jennifer Rubin writes in “Right Turn” in the Washington Post:
“The 9th Circuit gave the back of the hand to the argument that the Trump administration could borrow a definition from another section of the immigration statute to exclude grandmothers. The Supreme Court had used mothers-in-law as an example of a close familial relationship it wanted to protect. The 9th Circuit judges wrote: “Plaintiffs correctly point out that the familial relationships the Government seeks to bar from entry are within the same ‘degree of kinship’ as a mother-in-law.” It’s hard to make a case that grandmothers would not qualify. It does not appear that the government even made a good-faith effort to apply the Supreme Court’s direction.
On one level, it’s shocking that a Republican administration that is supposed to be a defender of “family values” would take such a miserly position. But, of course, family values are of little consequence to an administration that is more than willing to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, auguring for the breakup of intimate family relations (e.g., one sibling gets deported but American-born siblings remain).
The 9th Circuit also looked at the administration’s argument that a refugee with a formal assurance of settlement lacks a bona fide relationship with some entity or individual in the United States. The court set out the laborious screening process refugees undertake (making a mockery of the notion these people are a security threat) and noted that after all those steps are completed the refugee gets a sponsorship assurance “from one of nine private non-profit organizations, known as resettlement agencies.” The 9th Circuit held: “The Government contends that a formal assurance does not create a bona fide relationship between a resettlement agency and a refugee, and stresses that ‘[t]he assurance is not an agreement between the resettlement agency and the refugee; rather, it is an agreement between the agency and the federal government.’ But the Supreme Court’s stay decision specifies that a qualifying relationship is one that is ‘formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course, rather than for the purpose of evading [the Executive Order].”’”
Again, one cannot help but come away with the impression that the government is throwing up every half-baked idea it can find to limit the number of people entering the country, regardless of the national security risk or the hardship its action inflicts. The Trump administration is plainly reasoning backward — deny as many people as possible admittance and then think up a reason to justify its position.
In its fixation with keeping as many immigrants out of the United States as possible, the Trump administration cannot claim to merely be following the dictates of the law. (Gosh it’s out of our hands — “Dreamers” and grandmas have to go!) It is making up rules willy-nilly so as to show its rabid xenophobic base it is adhering to its promise of racial and ethnic exclusion. It’s hard to believe seasoned career Justice Department lawyers agree with these arguments. In its oversight hearings Congress should start grilling Attorney General Jeff Sessions as to how he comes up with his cockamamie legal arguments and whether political appointees are running roughshod over career DOJ lawyers.
Read Rubin’s full article at the link.
TIME FOR ACTION ON THE BROKEN U.S. IMMIGRATION COURTS — IF CONGRESS WON’T ACT, THE FEDERAL COURTS MUST
Paul Wickham Schmidt
United States Immigration Judge (Retired)
If nothing else, the Trump Administration has given me a new appreciation for the Post’s “JRube.” She certainly has “dialed up” Gonzo’s number and exposed what’s behind his pompous, disingenuous misuse of the term “rule of law.”
No chance that a GOP Senate with Chuck Grassley as Judiciary Chair is going to hold Gonzo accountable for his daily perversions of “justice.” But, at some point, Federal Courts could begin sanctioning DOJ lawyers for willful misrepresentations (the Hawaii arguments before the 9th contained several) and frivolous positions in litigation. It’s possible that some DOJ lawyers all the way up to Gonzo himself could be referred by Federal Judges to state bar authorities for a look at whether their multiple violations of ethical standards should result suspension of their law licenses.
Another thought kicking around inside my head is that Gonzo’s actions and his public statements are starting to make a plausible case for a due process challenge to the continued operation of the U.S. Immigration Courts.
As with school desegregation, prison reform, and voting rights, a Federal Court could find systematic bias and failure to protect due process. That could result in something like 1) a requirement that the DOJ submit a “due process restoration” plan to the court for approval, or 2) the court appointment of an independent “judicial monitor” to run the courts in a fair and unbiased manner consistent with due process, or 3) the Federal Courts could take over supervision of the US Immigration Courts pending the creation of an Article I (or Article III) replacement.
High on the list of constitutionally-required reforms would be ending the location of courts within DHS detention facilities. All courts should be located in areas where adequate pro bono counsel is reasonably available and accessible. Immigration Courts should be located outside of DHS facilities in buildings accessible to the public with reasonable security requirements. Immigration Judges must be required to continue cases until pro bono counsel can be retained. Alternatively, the Government could provide for appointed counsel.
Another obvious due process reform would be to strip the Attorney General of his (conflict of interest) authority to establish or review precedents and operating procedures for the U.S. Immigration Courts. Along with that, the DHS should be given an equal right to appeal adverse BIA appellate decisions to the Courts of Appeals (rather than seeking relief from the AG — clearly an interested party in relation to immigration enforcement).
There also should be an immediate end to the appointment and supervision of U.S. Immigration Judges by the politically-biased AG. U.S. Immigration Judges and BIA Appellate Immigration Judges should be appointed on a strict merit basis by either an independent judicial monitor or by the U.S. Courts of Appeals until Congress enacts statutory reforms.
The current U.S. Immigration Court system mocks justice in the same way that Jeff “Gonzo Apocalypto” Sessions mocks it almost every day. There might be no practical way to legally remove Gonzo at present, but the Federal Courts could step in to force the U.S. Immigration Courts to undertake due process reforms. The current situation is unacceptable from a constitutional due process standpoint. Something has to change for the better!
Judge Burman appeared at a panel discussion at the Center for Immigration Studies (“CIS”). CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian; Hon. Andrew Arthur, former U.S. Immigration Judge and CIS Resident Fellow; and former DOJ Civil Rights Division Official Hans von Spakovsky, currently Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation were also on the panel entitled “Immigration Court Backlog Causes and Solutions” held at the National Press Club on Aug. 24, 2017. Here’s a complete transcript furnished by CIS (with thanks to Nolan Rappaport who forwarded it to me).
Here’s the “meat” of Judge Burman’s remarks:
“First, the disclaimer, which is important so I don’t get fired. I’m speaking for the National Association of Immigration Judges, of which I am an elected officer. My opinions expressed will be my own opinions, informed by many discussions with our members in all parts of the country. I am not speaking on behalf of the Department of Justice, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the chief judge, or anybody else in the government. That’s important.
What is the NAIJ, the National Association of Immigration Judges? We’re a strictly nonpartisan organization whose focus is fairness, due process, transparency for the public, and judicial independence. We’re opposed to interference by parties of both administrations with the proper and efficient administration of justice. We’ve had just as much trouble with Republican administrations as Democratic administrations.
It’s been my experience that the people at the top really don’t understand what we do, and consequently the decisions they make are not helpful. For example, the – well, let me backtrack a little bit and talk about our organization.
Immigration judges are the – are the basic trial judges that hear the cases. Above us is the Board of Immigration Appeals, who function as if they were an appellate court. We, since 1996, have been clearly designated as judges by Congress. We are in the statute. We have prescribed jurisdiction and powers. Congress even gave us contempt authority to be able to enforce our decisions. Unfortunately, no administration has seen fit to actually give us the contempt authority. They’ve never done the regulations. But it’s in the statute.
The Board of Immigration Appeals is not in the statute. It has no legal existence, really. It’s essentially an emanation of the attorney general’s limitless discretion over immigration law. The members of the Board of – Board of Immigration Appeals are – in some cases they’ve got some experience. Generally, they don’t have very much. They’re a combination of people who are well-respected in other parts of the Department of Justice and deserve a well-paid position. Very often they’re staff attorneys who have basically moved up to become board members, skipping the immigration judge process. Very few immigration judges have ever been made board members, and none of them were made board members because they had been immigration judges. If they were, it was largely a coincidence.
The administration of the Executive Office for Immigration Review in which we and the BIA are housed is basically an administrative agency. We are judges, but we don’t have a court. We operate in an administrative agency that’s a lot closer to the Department of Motor Vehicles than it is to a district court or even a bankruptcy court, an Article I type court.
Our supervisors – I’m not sure why judges need supervisors, but our supervisors are called assistant chief immigration judges. Some of them have some experience. Some of them have no experience not only as judges, but really as attorneys. They were staff attorneys working in the bowels of EOIR, and gradually became temporary board members, and then permanent board members.
Interestingly, when a Court of Appeals panel is short a judge, they bring up a district judge. EOIR used to do that, by bringing up an immigration judge to fill out a panel at the board. They don’t do that anymore. They appoint their staff attorneys as temporary board members, a fact that is very shocking when we tell it to federal judges. They can’t imagine that a panel would be one member short and they’d put their law clerk on the panel, but that’s what goes on.
The top three judges until recently – the chief judge and the two primary deputies – had no courtroom experience that I’m aware of. Two of them have gone on. Unfortunately, one of them has gone on to be a BIA member. The other retired.
Our direct supervisors are the assistant chief immigration judges. Some are in headquarters, and they generally have very little experience. Others are in the field, and they do have some experience – although, for example, the last two ACIJs – assistant chief immigration judges – who were appointed became judges in 2016. So they don’t have vast experience. Well, they may be fine people with other forms of experience, but this agency is not run by experienced judges, and I think it’s important to understand that.
There’s a severe misallocation of resources within EOIR. I think Congress probably has given us plenty of money, but we misuse it. In the past administration, the number of senior executive service – SES – officials has doubled. Maybe they needed some more administrative depth, although I doubt it. The assistant chief immigration judges are proliferating. I think there’s 22 of them now. These are people who may do some cases. Some of them do no cases. They generally don’t really move the ball when it comes to adjudicating cases. Somehow, the federal courts are able to function without all of these intermediaries and supervisory judges, and I think that we would function better without them as well.
To give you a few examples – I could give you thousands of examples, and if you want to stick around I’ll be happy to talk about it. Art was talking about the juvenile surge. I think it was approximately 50,000 juveniles came across the border. To appear to be tough, I guess, they were prioritized. The official line is, you know, we’re going to give them their asylum hearings immediately. I’m not sure what kind of asylum case that a 6-year-old might have, but we would hear the case and do it quickly, and then discourage people from coming to our country. But, in fact, what’s actually happened is the juvenile docket is basically a meet-and-greet. The judges are not – first of all, I’m not allowed to be a juvenile judge. The juvenile judges are carefully selected for people who get along well with children, I guess. (Laughter.) Really, what they do is they just – they see the kids periodically, and in the meantime the children are filing their asylum cases with the asylum office, where they’re applying for special immigrant juvenile status, various things. But judge time is being wasted on that.
Another example is the current surge. I have a really busy docket. Art was talking about cases being scheduled in 2021. The backlog for me is infinite. 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. So they’re just piling up in the ether somewhere.
As busy as I am, they send me to the border, but these border details are politically oriented. First of all, we probably could be doing them by tele-video. But assuming that they want to do them in person, you would think that they would only send the number of judges that are really needed. But, in fact, on my last detail of 10 business days, two-week detail, two days I had no cases scheduled at all. And back home having two cases off the docket, which almost never happens – or two days off the docket, which almost never happens, would be useful because I could work on motions and decisions. But when I’m in Jena, Louisiana, I can’t really work on my regular stuff. So I’m just reading email and hanging out there.
The reason for that is because there’s been no attempt to comply with the attorney general’s request that we rush judges to the border with, at the same time, making sure that there’s enough work or not to send more judges than is really necessary to do the work. I assume the people that run our agency just want to make the attorney general happy, and they send as many judges to the border as possible.
One particularly bizarre example was in San Antonio. The San Antonio judges were doing a detail to one of the outlying detention facilities by tele-video. But they wanted to rush judges to the border, so they assigned a bunch of judges in the country that had their own dockets to take over that docket by tele-video on one week’s notice. Well, one week’s notice meant that the judges in San Antonio couldn’t reset cases. You’ve got to give at least 10 days’ notice of a hearing by regulation. So we had judges taken away from their regular dockets to do that; judges who normally would have done that who already were on the border – San Antonio is pretty closer to the border – didn’t have anything to do.
Now, those may be extreme cases, but this happens all too much, and it’s because of political interference. And like I say, it’s got nothing to do with party. We’ve had the same problem with Democratic and Republican administrations. It comes from political decisions animating the process and people who don’t really understand what they’re managing, just attempting to placate the guy on the top. So that’s basically what’s been happening.
Am I over my 10 minutes here?
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, you’re right at it. If you’ve got a couple more minutes, that’s fine.
JUDGE BURMAN: Well, let me just go over some possible suggestions.
Let judges be judges – immigration judges that control their own courts and their own dockets. We should be able to supervise our own law clerks and our own legal assistants, which currently we don’t. And the contempt authority we were given in 1996 should eventually – should finally get some regulations to implement it.
EOIR’s overhead needs to be reduced. There’s too many positions at headquarters and too few positions in the field. When EOIR was originally set up, the idea was that each judge would need three legal assistants to docket the cases and find the files and make copies and all that. At one point last year we were down to less than one legal assistant per judge in Arlington, where I am, and in Los Angeles it was even worse. When you do that, the judge is looking for files, the judge is making copies, the judge doesn’t have the evidence that’s been filed. There’s nothing more annoying than to start a hearing and to find that evidence was filed that I don’t have. The case has to be continued. I have to have a chance to find the evidence and review it.
It would be nice if our management were more experienced than they are, or at least have some more courtroom experience.
We need an electronic filing system like all the other courts have. Fortunately, that’s one thing that Acting Director McHenry has said is his top priority, and I think that he will take care of that.
The BIA is a problem. The BIA doesn’t have the kind of expertise that the federal courts would defer to. Consequently, I think a lot of the bad appellate law that Art was referring to is caused by the fact that the BIA really doesn’t have any respect in the federal court system. They’re not immigration experts. They want their Chevron deference, but they are not getting it. They’re not getting it from the Court of Appeals. They’re not getting it from the Supreme Court, either.
The BIA also remands way too many cases. When we make a decision, we send it up to the BIA. We don’t really care what they do. They could affirm us. They could reverse us. We don’t want to see it back. We’ve got too much stuff to see them back. And this happens all the time. If they remand the case, they don’t ever have to take credit for the decision that they make. I assume that’s why they’re doing it, to try to make us do it.
We need a proper judicial disciplinary system. Starting in 2006, which is where the backlog problem began, the attorney general first of all subjected us to annual appraisals, evaluations, which previously OPM had waived due to our judicial function. So that’s a waste of time. Judges were punished for the – for things that are not punishment. Judges were punished because a Court of Appeals would say that you made a mistake or he was rude or – it’s just crazy. Judges were punished or could be punished for granting – for not granting continuances. No judge was ever punished for granting a continuance. So it’s no surprise that, as I pointed out, continuances have been granted at a much greater level – in fact, too great a level. But when in doubt, we continue now because if we don’t do that we’re subject to punishment, and nobody really wants that.
And finally, the ultimate solution, I think, is an Article I court like the bankruptcy court – a specialized court, could be in the judicial branch, could be in the executive branch – to give us independence, to ensure that we have judges and appellate judges who are appointed in a transparent way, being vetted by the private bar, the government, and anybody else.
And I’m way over my 10 minutes, so I’ll be – I’ll be sure to babble on later if you want me to. Thank you.”
Judge Arthur’s kind opening words about the late Juan Osuna were a nice touch. One of Juan’s great strengths as person, executive, judge, and teacher was his ability to maintain good friendships with and respect from folks with an assortment of ideas on immigration.
Judge Burman’s “no BS” insights are as timely as they are unusual. That’s because U.S. Immigration Judges are not encouraged to speak publicly and forthrightly about their jobs.
The Supervisory Judge and the EOIR Ethics Office must approve all public appearances by U.S. Immigration Judges including teaching and pro bono training. A precondition for receiving permission is that the judge adhere to the DOJ/EOIR “party line” and not say anything critical about the agency or colleagues. In other words, telling the truth is discouraged.
As a result, most Immigration Judges don’t bother to interact with the public except in their courtrooms. A small percentage of sitting judges do almost all of the outreach and public education for the Immigration Courts.
While EOIR Senior Executives and Supervisors often appear at “high profile events” or will agree to limited press interviews, they all too often have little if any grasp of what happens at the “retail level” in the Immigration Courts. Even when they do, they often appear to feel that their job security depends on making things sound much better than they really are or that progress is being made where actually regression is taking place.
In reality, the system functioned better in the 1990s than it does two decades later. Due Process protection for individuals — the sole mission of EOIR — has actually regressed in recent years as quality and fairness have taken a back seat to churning numbers, carrying out political priorities, not rocking the boat, and going along to get along. Such things are typical within government agency bureaucracies, but atypical among well-functioning court systems.
I once appeared on a panel with a U.S. District Judge. After hearing my elaborate, global disclaimer, he chuckled. Then he pointedly told the audience words to the effect of “I’m here as a judge because you asked me, and I wanted to come. I didn’t tell the Chief Judge I was coming, and I wouldn’t dream of asking his or anyone else’s permission to speak my mind.”
I hope that everyone picked up Judge Burman’s point that “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” or “ADR” is still in full swing at EOIR. Cases are shuffled, moved around, taken off docket, and then restored to the docket to conceal that the backlog in Arlington goes out beyond the artificial “2020 limit” that Judge Burman has been instructed to use for “public consumption.” But there are other cases out there aimlessly “floating around the ether.” And, based on my experience, I’m relatively certain that many courts are worse than Arlington.
Judge Burman also makes another great “inside baseball” point — too many unnecessary remands from the BIA. Up until the very ill-advised “Ashcroft Reforms” the BIA exercised de novo factfinding authority. This meant that when the BIA disagreed with the Immigration Judge’s disposition, on any ground, they could simply decide the case and enter a final administrative order for the winning party.
After Ashcroft stripped the BIA of factfinding authority, nearly every case where the BIA disagrees with the lower court decision must be returned to the Immigration Court for further proceedings. Given the overloaded docket and lack of e-filing capability within EOIR, such routine remands can often take many months or even years. Sometimes, the file gets lost in the shuffle until one or both parties inquire about it.
The Immigration Courts are also burdened with useless administrative remands to check fingerprints in open court following BIA review. This function should be performed solely by DHS, whose Counsel can notify the Immigration Court in rare cases where the prints disclose previously unknown facts. In 13 years as an Immigration Judge, I had about 3 or 4 cases (out of thousands) where such “post hoc” prints checks revealed previously unknown material information. I would would have reopened any such case. So, the existing procedures are unnecessary and incredibly wasteful of limited judicial docket time.
I agree completely with Judge Burman that the deterioration of the Immigration Courts spans Administrations of both parties. Not surprisingly, I also agree with him that the only real solution to the Courts’ woes is an independent Article I Court. Sooner, rather than later!
“The backlog of cases in US immigration courts has continued to worsen amid the Trump administration’s border crackdown, new statistics show.
As of the end of July, there were 617,527 cases pending in immigration courts. It’s the first time this number has crossed the 600,000 mark, according to information released on Thursday by the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University that tracks US government data.
The immigration court system, which is an arm of the US Department of Justice, has been grappling with growing caseloads for years. Immigration judges and lawyers have reported case delays stretching years out. But the latest numbers show a large jump in 2017. When Trump took office in January, there were approximately 540,000 pending cases.
“It is still overwhelming to the immigration judges,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “The levels of caseload are higher than we’ve ever seen before.”
. . . .
As of Aug. 14, there were 334 immigration judges nationwide — 54 have been hired since Trump took office. The office is authorized by Congress to have 384 judges. Marks said that a large number of judges are eligible to retire, which could cut into any progress that DOJ makes in hiring new judges. New judges also don’t move as quickly as experienced ones, she said.
Under a Jan. 25 executive order on immigration enforcement, the Justice Department said in August that it had mobilized more than 100 immigration judges to hear cases at Department of Homeland Security detention facilities, either in-person or by video teleconferencing. Between Feb. 1 and July 31, immigration judges had issued nearly 28 percent more deportation orders as compared to the same time period last year, DOJ said.
Marks said that immigration judges had been warning officials about the backlog for years, and would continue to do so.
“The canaries in the coal mine are still gasping for air,” she said.”
The DOJ is: clueless. planless, incompetent, and totally unqualified to manage a system of the size and importance of the current US Immigration Court consistently with due process. Systemically, knowingly running a system that engages in Aimless Docket Reshuffling (“ADR”), puts long pending cases that can be tried at the end of the line (many years out), while engaging in unnecessary detention and hustling more recent arrivals through without a reasonable chance to obtain representation or present their claims for relief, indeed sometimes without any hearings at all, is already a “default” on due process. Greater reliance on already outdated and overwhelmed “televideo court equipment” will further compromise due process. Even now, as most Immigration Judges and attorneys who have to use EOIR Televideo courts will tell you, the system is NQRFPT (“Not Quite Ready For Prime Time”). Jamming more cases into it is asking for a complete breakdown.
I’m actually somewhat surprised that no group has found a way to bring a class action seeking to shut down the entire Immigration Court System and the DHS Administrative Removal System until improvements are made so that they comply with due process. Sort of like the litigation that eventually required some prison systems to come into compliance with constitutional norms. In some cases, this is even worse than prisons, since many individuals in immigration detention haven’t been convicted of any crimes; they are just asserting their statutory and constitutional rights to have a fair adjudication of their ability to remain in the US.
Also, how is a system that treats its own judges as “canaries gasping for breath in the coal mine” going to deliver on due process for those individuals expecting it from those same judges? It isn’t.
And Congress should not get off the hook either. This problem has been growing very publicly for years over several Administrations while Congress has failed to deliver on proposals for an independent US Immigration Court that have been kicking around for more than a decade!
None of the DOJ’s statements deal with the real solution here: use of prosecutorial discretion “PD” on a widespread basis to resolve most of these cases and take them off the Immigration Courts’ docket. That needs to be followed by serious negotiations with Congress for: 1) a realistic legalization program, 2) an increase in legal immigration to put our immigration laws more in line with the actual market conditions that are bringing, and will continue to bring, more immigrant workers to the US, and an independent Immigration Court where the capacity to adjudicate cases consistently with due process is a primary consideration in both DHS’s deciding how many cases to place on the docket and how individual judges manage their individual dockets. That’s simply making changes to bring the Immigration Court system and the immigration laws into line with the rest of the U.S. legal system and our overall needs to maintain and administer a much more robust and inclusive legal immigration system that wouldn’t waste money on impractical walls and on “gonzo” immigration enforcement ands unnecessary detention.