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.
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.
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 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.
“When people arrive at the border seeking asylum from persecution, the United States gives them the benefit of the doubt. As long as they can show there’s a “significant possibility” that they deserve protection, they’re allowed to stay and make their case to an immigration judge. President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress want to change that.
On Sunday, the Trump administration demanded that Congress overhaul the US asylum system as part of any legislation to protect the nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation. The White House’s asylum proposal, laid out in nine bullet-pointed items as part of the broader immigration plan, appears to be modeled on the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, a bill that Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee approved in July. The bill, which has not been passed by the full House, would make it easier for the Department of Homeland Securityto quickly reject asylum claims and force most asylum seekers to remain in detention while their cases are decided. The overall effect would be to transform a system for protecting persecuted people, created in the wake of World War II, into a much more adversarial process.
At a hearing in July, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) warned that the GOP proposal would “all but destroy the US asylum system.” Now Trump is trying to fold those changes into a deal to protect the Dreamers—undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children—who were previously covered by Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Eleanor Acer, an expert on refugees at the advocacy group Human Rights First, saidin a statement Monday that Trump’s demands will “block those fleeing persecution and violence from even applying for asylum, and punish those who seek protection by preventing their release from immigration detention facilities and jails.”
But Republicans like Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) argue that asylum reform is needed to address “pervasive” fraud, such as false claims of persecution. Asylum claims from the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have been a major focus for Republicans. Between 2013 and 2015, there were more asylum claims from the Northern Triangle, which has been terrorized by MS-13 and other gangs, than in the previous 15 years combined. A 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the United States has “limited capabilities to detect asylum fraud.” But the scope of the problem is not known. Leah Chavla, a program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, says going after fraud is misguided in light of the many checks and balances that are already in place.
The real “fraudsters” here are the GOP restrictionists, led by folks like Goodlatte, Miller, and Sessions, trying to fob off their knowingly false and contrived narrative on America. Shame!
Second, the current system intentionally denies lawyers to the respondents in detention in obscure locations along the Southern Border, specifically selected to make it difficult for individuals to exercise their rights.Raising the standards would virtually guarantee rejection of all such asylum seekerswithout any hearing at all.The standard for having asylum granted is supposed to be a generous “well-founded fear” (in other words, a 10% chance or a “reasonable chance”). In fact, however, DHS and EOIR often fail to honor the existing legal standards. Forcing unrepresented individuals in detention with no chance to gather evidence to establish that it is “more likely than not” that they would be granted asylum is a ridiculous travesty of justice.
Third, access to lawyers, not detention, is the most cost-effective way to secure appearance at Immigration Court hearings.Individuals who are able to obtain lawyers, in other words those who actually understand what is happening, have a relatively low rate of “failure to appear.” In fact, a long-term study by the American Immigration Council shows that 95% of minors represented by counsel appear for their hearings as opposed to approximately 67% for those who are unrepresented. See,e.g., https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/taking-attendance-new-data-finds-majority-children-appear-immigration-court
Rather than curtailment of rights or expensive and inhumane detention, the best way of insure that all asylum applicants appear for their scheduled hearings and receive full due process would be to insure that the hearings take place in areas with adequate supplies of pro bono and “low bono” counsel and that hearings are scheduled in a predictable manner that does not intentionally outstrip the capabilities of the pro bono bar.
Fourth, a rational response to fraud concerns would be building better fraud detection programs within DHS, rather than denying vulnerable individuals their statutory and constitutional rights. What would a better system look like: more traditional law enforcement tools, like undercover operations, use of informants to infiltrate smuggling operations, and much better intelligence on the operations of human trafficking rings. And, there’s plenty of resources to do it. DHS just lacks the ability and/or the motivation. Many of the resources now wasted on “gonzo” interior enforcement and mindless detention — sacking up janitors and maids for deportation and detaining rape victims applying for asylum — could be “redeployed” to meaningful, although more challenging, law enforcement activities aimed at rationally addressing the fraud problem rather than using it as a bogus excuse to harm the vulnerable.
Fifth, Goodlatte’s whole premise of fraud among Southern Border asylum applications is highly illogical. Most of the Southern Border asylum claims involve some variant of so-called “particular social groups” or “PSGs,” But, the entire immigration adjudication system at all levels has traditionally been biased against just such claims. and, it is particularly biased againstsuch claims from Central America. PSG claims from Central America receive “strict scrutiny’ at every level of the asylum system! No fraudster in his or her right mind would go to the trouble of “dummying up” a PSG claim which will likely be rejected. No, if you’re going to the trouble of committing fraud, you’d fabricate a “political or religious activist or supporter claim” of the type that are much more routinely granted across the board.
Don’t let Trump, Miller, Sessions, Goodlatte, and their band of shameless GOP xenophobes get away with destroying our precious asylum system! Resist now! Resist forever! Stand up for Due Process, or eventually YOU won’t any at all! Some Dude once said “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” While arrogant folks like the restrictionists obviously don’t believe that, it’s still good advice.
There are lots areas where U.S. Immigration Judges, particularly new ones, could use training. Applying the asylum standards of proof set forth in Cardoza-Fonseca and Mogharrabi, properly applying the presumption based on past persecution in 8 CFR 1208.13, adjudicating “other serious harm” claims, insuring that requests for corroboration are “reasonable,” making credibility determinations on the basis of the record as a whole and all relevant factors, and understanding and properly applying the complex concepts of “divisibility,” categorical approach,” and “modified categorical approach” in criminal-related cases immediately come to mind. Adjudicating motions to continue doesn’t jump out at me as an area where guidance is particularly necessary. In fact, I never really met an Immigration Judge who didn’t have a pretty good sense of what the criteria were for continuances.
The OPPM blows by the real reason why the dockets are a mess: politically motivated “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” (“ADR”) caused by ever changing political priorities in Immigration Court.Shifting Immigration Judges from previously-scheduled “Merits Hearings” to “Master Calendars” for recently arrived aliens, detainees who needn’t be in detention, and juveniles, has resulted in perhaps hundreds of thousands of “ready for trial” cases being “orbited” to largely imaginary merits hearing dates years from now.
The OPPM falsely suggests that Immigration Judges have control over their dockets. But, individual Immigration Judges were stripped of any real semblance of docket control years ago. That’s the major problem causing backlogs. It’s not uncommon for Immigration Judges to find themselves detailed to other courts or shifted to other priorities without any meaningful input and sometimes with minimal advance notice. Ask the many private attorneys in New York, Chicago, and other major locations who arrive at long-ago-scheduled merits hearing, witnesses in tow, only to find out the Immigration Judge has been “reassigned” without advance notice, and that their cases are likely to go back to Master Calendar again for assignment of yet another Merits Hearing date with another judge years in the future. And, given the documented inconsistencies in adjudication results, particularly in asylum cases, among U.S. Immigration Judges, don’t think that re-assignment to a “new” Immigration Judge is a “neutral” occurrence. In all too many cases, it’s “outcome determinative.”
The OPPM falsely suggests that continuances are largely a “scheme” by private attorneys to “game the system.” Undoubtedly, respondents sometimes do benefit by delays — many of which are actually caused not by them but by the internal procedures of EOIR and DOJ. They just take advantage of that which the system at the administrative/political level of DOJ/EOIR offers them. But, there are probably just as many private attorneys who have been trying for years to get their clients’ cases to trial, only to be “stiffed” by the politicos ultimately in charge of the system. Individual Immigration Judges are more often than not merely the “bearers of bad news” over which they have no personal control (but do get some of the flack).
The OPPM appears to be directed at overburdened, overworked, under-appreciated NGOs who have been “hosed around” by the politicos at DOJ and EOIR Headquarters. They have been forced to race to cover “new priority” cases at the border, in detention, or on accelerated dockets while back at the “home court” their non-detained “ready for trial” cases are being “orbited” to dockets years in the future. Moreover, it is well-known the there is a high rate of turnover among NGO and pro bono group attorneys. Therefore the DOJ/EOIR tactics are designed to “wear down” pro bono representatives, thus forcing individuals to abandon representation or go unrepresented. This, in turn, all but guarantees failure of their claims. Indeed, the recent NWIRP litigation has made it clear that DOJ and EOIR are willing to bend the existing regulations to threaten or penalize those trying to provide pro bono assistance. http://immigrationcourtside.com/2017/07/29/eoir-pro-bono-representation-u-s-district-judge-richard-m-jones-rips-eoirs-violation-of-1st-amendment-common-sense-nwirp-v-sessions-wd-wa/.
The OPPM also falsely suggests that DHS only rarely asks for continuances. Not true! DHS has a steady stream of reasons for requesting continuances including such “administratively fixable” things as: lost or missing files, sick attorneys, shortage of staff, missing fingerprints, changing priorities, ongoing investigations, new charges of removability, training, details, need to review exhibits lost in the mail, etc. Moreover, as recently documented by TRAC, the Trump Administration’s abandonment of a sensible use of “prosecutorial discretion” to get low priority cases off the Immigration Court docket is compounding the backlog issue. Additionally, the reported DHS unwillingness to stipulate to issues and grants of relief has caused many cases that could have been completed at Master Calendar or on “short docket” to be set for 3-4 hour merits hearing blocks instead.
Oh, and lets not forget that docket problems are also aggravated by the byzantine, glacial, yet one-sided hiring process for Immigration Judges developed and administered by DOJ largely in response to political abuse of the hiring system by the Bush-era DOJ. Additionally, DOJ & EOIR have failed to anticipate problems caused by predictable loss of experienced judges to retirement, and they have failed to fill the additional positions allocated by Congress in a timely fashion.
NOTE TO REPORTERS IN THE AUDIENCE: Don’t be fooled or “taken in” by this smokescreen. Faced with exposure of chronic problems, it’s a “bureaucratic norm” within DOJ and EOIR, as well as a specialty of the Trump Administration, to attempt to shift attention and blame elsewhere. Don’t fall for it! The “real story” here is in the absolute mess that political meddling at the DOJ has made, and continues to make, out of sound docket management and due process in the U.S. Immigration Courts and the unwillingness and inability of the politicos to fix the problems they have created or aggravated. No OPPM or series of “administrative band aids” is going to fix this broken system. We need an Article I U.S. Immigration Court now!