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.
“A Dec. 20 memo, issued by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) replaces 2007 guidelines, spelling out policies and procedures judges should follow in dealing with children who crossed the border illegally alone and face possible deportation.
The new memo removes suggestions contained in the 2007 memo for how to conduct “child-sensitive questioning” and adds reminders to judges to maintain “impartiality” even though “juvenile cases may present sympathetic allegations.” The new document also changes the word “child” to “unmarried individual under the age of 18” in many instances.
An EOIR official said the new memo contained “clarifications and updates” to 10-year-old guidance “in order to be consistent with the laws as they’ve been passed by Congress.” The new memo was posted on the Justice Department website but has not been previously reported.
Immigration advocates said they worry the new guidelines could make court appearances for children more difficult, and a spokeswoman for the union representing immigration judges said judges are concerned about the tone of the memo.
President Donald Trump has made tougher immigration enforcement a key policy goal of his administration, and has focused particularly on trying to curb the illegal entry of children. The administration says it wants to prevent vulnerable juveniles from making perilous journeys to the United States and eliminate fraud from programs for young immigrants.
One changed section of the memo focuses on how to make children comfortable in the court in advance of hearings. The old guidance says they “should be permitted to explore” courtrooms and allowed to “sit in all locations, (including, especially, the judge’s bench and the witness stand).”
The new guidance says such explorations should take place only “to the extent that resources and time permit” and specifically puts the judge’s bench off limits.
The new memo also warns judges to be skeptical, since an unaccompanied minor “generally receives more favorable treatment under the law than other categories of illegal aliens,” which creates “an incentive to misrepresent accompaniment status or age in order to attempt to qualify for the benefits.” It also says to be on the lookout for “fraud and abuse,” language that was not in the previous memo.
‘WOLVES IN SHEEP CLOTHING’
Immigration judges are appointed by the U.S. Attorney General and courts are part of the Department of Justice, not an independent branch. The only sitting immigration judges routinely allowed to speak to the media are representatives of their union, the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Dana Marks, a sitting judge and spokeswoman for the union, said the “overall tone” of the memo “is very distressing and concerning to immigration judges.”
“There is a feeling that the immigration courts are just being demoted into immigration enforcement offices, rather than neutral arbiters,” Marks said. “There has been a relentless beating of the drum toward enforcement rather than due process.”
Former immigration judge Andrew Arthur, who now works at the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes lower levels of immigration overall, said the new guidelines were needed.
In their previous form, he said, “so much emphasis was placed on the potential inability of the alien to understand the proceedings … that it almost put the judge into the position of being an advocate.”
The courts have had to handle a surge in cases for unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, after their numbers sky-rocketed in 2014 as violence in the region caused residents to flee north.
While illegal crossings initially fell after Trump took office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that since May, each month has seen an increase in children being apprehended either alone or with family members.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech in Boston in September that the special accommodations for unaccompanied minors had been exploited by “gang members who come to this country as wolves in sheep clothing.”
Echoing some of these concerns, the new memo notes in a preamble that not all child cases involve innocents, and that the courts might see “an adolescent gang member” or “a teenager convicted as an adult for serious criminal activity.”
Jennifer Podkul, policy director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) said Congress included special procedural protections for immigrant children in a 2008 anti-trafficking bill to “make sure that a kid gets a fair shot in the courtroom.”
“These kids are by themselves telling a very complicated and oftentimes very traumatic story,” said Podkul. “The approach of this memo, which is much more suspicious, is not going to help get to the truth of a child’s story.”
In cases where children are called to testify, the old guidance instructed judges to “seek to limit the amount of time the child is on the stand.” The new guidance says that judges should “consider” limiting the child’s time on the stand “without compromising due process for the opposing party,” which is generally a government prosecutor.
The memo leaves in a range of special accommodations made for children, including allowing them to bring a pillow or booster seat or a “toy, book, or other personal item.” It also maintains that cases involving unaccompanied minors should be heard on a separate docket when possible and that children should not be detained or transported with adults.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sue Horton and Mary Milliken”
Yes, my dear friend Judge Dana Leigh Marks, Gonzo sees and treats the U.S. Immigration Courts as part of DHS Enforcement — “Just a Whistlestop on The Deportation Express.”
After 35 years of flawed DOJ stewardship and improper political meddling by all Administrations, the U.S. Immigration Courts are largely back in the same hopeless, understaffed, incompetently administered, enforcement-dominated mess that they were in 1983 when the Reagan Administration created EOIR to provide at least some actual and apparent separation between prosecutorial and judicial functions.
The only solution is an independent Article I U.S. Immigration Court. Until that happens, failure, inefficiency, ands unfairness will continue to plague the immigration Court system.
Eventually, the Article III reviewing courts are going to have to decide whether 1) to simply put the Constitution and their judicial oaths in the drawer and give the Executive a “free pass” on immigration; or 2) do their duty, stop the train, and essentially take over the administration of the immigration Courts by ordering Immigration Judges and the BIA to conform to certain basic due process requirements or face the prospect of having almost every Petition for Review returned for a “redo.” If you think the backlog is bad now, wait till that happens.
At this point, I hope for #2, but see #1 as a distinct possibility, particularly as Trump continues to co-opt the Article III judiciary with judges for whom loyalty to Trump and his agenda appears a more important qualification that a reputation for scholarship, legal excellence, collegiality, impartiality, and fairness.
I also found the comments of my former colleague Judge (Retired) Andrew Arthur somewhat puzzling. If you are a judge in a courtroom actually trying to carry out your constitutional duty to provide due process and fairness; the DHS is represented by an experienced Assistant Chief Counsel; and you have an unrepresented kid who is scared to return his or her home country, who is going to be that child’s advocate if not the Immigration Judge?
Rather than bogus guidelines, the Administration should be doing the right thing and the smart thing — working with the private bar to insure that cases involving claims for asylum and other protection are docketed and scheduled in a manner that insures that each applicant will have reasonable access to pro bono or low bono counsel before filing the Form I-589 for asylum.
To take the most obvious example, Jennifer Podkul, Policy Director of Kids in Need of Defense (“KIND), and Wendy Young, Executive Director of KIND are as smart as any lawyers around. They want the Immigration Court system to succeed in a fair and efficient manner. They have spent more time thinking about the problems of kids in Immigraton Court and how to solve them than any individual or group of individuals now in the US. Government.
So, instead of “trashing” immigration lawyers, why don’t Sessions and his subordinates at DOJ sit down with Young, Podkul, and some of their other high-powered NGO colleagues, and Judge Marks and the NAIJ and work out a solutionfor getting kids through the Immigraton Court system in a fair manner consistent with Due Process? Why is Sessions so afraid to venture outside of his little “restrictionist world” in trying to solve problems?
But, unfortunately, this Administration is much more interested in forcing failure on the system and then pointing fingers at the victims, that is, the migrants seeking justice, than it is in achieving the real reformsnecessary to get our U.S. Immigration Courts operating in a fair, impartial, and efficient manner, consistent with the law and Constitutional Due Process.
Kids and other vulnerable individuals seem like a logical targets for bullies like Trump, Sessions, and the rest of the GOP White Nationalist Gang.
Good things aren’t going to happen to a country that picks on children and enables cowardly leaders.
But, after all, these Dudes are still defending the Confedracy, rebellion against the USA, and the fight to preserve slavery! I guess once on the wrong side of history, always on the wrong side of history. The real question is where to the rest of us stand, and what are we can do about the steady erosion of law, morality, and humane values by the Trump Administration and its supporters.
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.
“In September 2014, Gilberto Velasquez, a 38-year-old house painter from El Salvador, received life-changing news: The U.S. government had decided to shelve its deportation action against him.
The move was part of a policy change initiated by then-President Barack Obama in 2011 to pull back from deporting immigrants who had formed deep ties in the United States and whom the government considered no threat to public safety. Instead, the administration would prioritize illegal immigrants who had committed serious crimes.
Last month, things changed again for the painter, who has lived in the United States illegally since 2005 and has a U.S.-born child. He received news that the government wanted to put his deportation case back on the court calendar, citing another shift in priorities, this time by President Donald Trump.
The Trump administration has moved to reopen the cases of hundreds of illegal immigrants who, like Velasquez, had been given a reprieve from deportation, according to government data and court documents reviewed by Reuters and interviews with immigration lawyers.
Trump signaled in January that he planned to dramatically widen the net of illegal immigrants targeted for deportation, but his administration has not publicized its efforts to reopen immigration cases.
It represents one of the first concrete examples of the crackdown promised by Trump and is likely to stir fears among tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who thought they were safe from deportation.
While cases were reopened during the Obama administration as well, it was generally only if an immigrant had committed a serious crime, immigration attorneys say. The Trump administration has sharply increased the number of cases it is asking the courts to reopen, and its targets appear to include at least some people who have not committed any crimes since their cases were closed.
Between March 1 and May 31, prosecutors moved to reopen 1,329 cases, according to a Reuters’ analysis of data from the Executive Office of Immigration Review, or EOIR. The Obama administration filed 430 similar motions during the same period in 2016.
Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed the agency was now filing motions with immigration courts to reopen cases where illegal immigrants had “since been arrested for or convicted of a crime.”
It is not possible to tell from the EOIR data how many of the cases the Trump administration is seeking to reopen involve immigrants who committed crimes after their cases were closed.
Attorneys interviewed by Reuters say indeed some of the cases being reopened are because immigrants were arrested for serious crimes, but they are also seeing cases involving people who haven’t committed crimes or who were cited for minor violations, like traffic tickets.
“This is a sea change, said attorney David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Before, if someone did something after the case was closed out that showed that person was a threat, then it would be reopened. Now they are opening cases just because they want to deport people.”
Elzea said the agency reviews cases, “to see if the basis for prosecutorial discretion is still appropriate.”
After Obama announced his shift toward targeting illegal immigrants who had committed serious crimes, prosecutors embraced their new discretion to close cases.
Between January 2012 and Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, the government shelved some 81,000 cases, according to Reuters’ data analysis. These so-called “administrative closures” did not extend full legal status to those whose cases were closed, but they did remove the threat of imminent deportation.
Trump signed an executive order overturning the Obama-era policy on Jan. 25. Under the new guidelines, while criminals remain the highest priority for deportation, anyone in the country illegally is a potential target.
In cases reviewed by Reuters, the administration explicitly cited Trump’s executive order in 30 separate motions as a reason to put the immigrant back on the court docket. (For a link to an excerpted document: tmsnrt.rs/2sI6aby)
Since immigration cases aren’t generally public, Reuters was able to review only cases made available by attorneys.
In the 32 reopened cases examined by Reuters:
–22 involved immigrants who, according to their attorneys, had not been in trouble with the law since their cases were closed.
–Two of the cases involved serious crimes committed after their cases were closed: domestic violence and driving under the influence.
–At least six of the cases involved minor infractions, including speeding after having unpaid traffic tickets, or driving without a valid license, according to the attorneys.
In Velasquez’s case, for example, he was cited for driving without a license in Tennessee, where illegal immigrants cannot get licenses, he said.
“I respect the law and just dedicate myself to my work,” he said. “I don’t understand why this is happening.”
Motions to reopen closed cases have been filed in 32 states, with the highest numbers in California, Florida and Virginia, according to Reuters’ review of EOIR data. The bulk of the examples reviewed by Reuters were two dozen motions sent over the span of a couple days by the New Orleans ICE office.
PUMPKIN SEED ARREST
Sally Joyner, an immigration attorney in Memphis, Tennessee said one of her Central American clients, who crossed the border with her children in 2013, was allowed to stay in the United States after the government filed a motion to close her case in December 2015.
Since crossing the border, the woman has not been arrested or had trouble with law enforcement, said Joyner, who asked that her client’s name not be used because of the pending legal action.
Nevertheless, on March 29, ICE filed a two-page motion to reopen the case against the woman and her children. When Joyner queried ICE, an official said the agency had been notified that her client had a criminal history in El Salvador, according to documents seen by Reuters.
The woman had been arrested for selling pumpkin seeds as an unauthorized street vendor. Government documents show U.S. authorities knew about the arrest before her case was closed.
Dana Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said that revisiting previously closed matters will add to a record backlog of 580,000 pending immigration cases.
“If we have to go back and review all of those decisions that were already made, it clearly generates more work,” she said. “It’s a judicial do-over.”
I remember that during his confirmation hearings in the Senate, Secretary Kelly came across as someone who understood law enforcement priorities and the futility of “enforcement for enforcement’s sake.” But the “hallmarks” of the “Kelly DHS” have been arbitrary and irrational enforcement, lack of transparency, lack of planning, general disregard of humane values, disrespect for migrants, waste of taxpayer dollars, and gross abuse of the U.S. Immigration Court’s docket.
“Now the Trump administration is debating whether to rescind the waivers that have allowed Raj, and tens of thousands of others, to immigrate to the United States in the past decade (See graphic on waivers: tmsnrt.rs/2oPssIo). Some immigration hardliners are concerned the exemptions could allow terrorists to slip into the country.
U.S. President Donald Trump directed the secretaries of State and Homeland Security, in consultation with the attorney general, to consider abolishing the waivers in an executive order in March. That directive was overshadowed by the same order’s temporary ban on all refugees and on travelers from six mostly Muslim nations.
The bans on refugees and travel were challenged in lawsuits, and their implementation has been suspended pending full hearings in court. But the waiver review was not included in the court rulings, so that part of the order remains in effect.
Rules governing the waivers have been hammered out over the last decade with both Democratic and Republican support. But in recent years they have drawn fire from some conservative lawmakers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he was a senator.
A State Department official said this week the department is working with DHS to review the waivers and is “looking at actually pulling them back in accordance with the executive order.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to give details on the timing of the review or its likely outcome. The Department of Justice declined to comment.
KURDS, KAREN, HMONG
Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Congress expanded the definition of who could be considered a terrorist and what constituted “material support” to terrorism in rules now known as the Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds.
Those changes ensnared people like Raj who were coerced or inadvertently provided support to terrorists, as well as members of persecuted ethnic groups that supported rebel organizations, and even U.S.-allied groups fighting against authoritarian regimes.
Without an exemption, members of Kurdish groups that battled Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq, Hmong groups who fought alongside U.S. troops in Vietnam, or some Cubans who fought Fidel Castro’s regime would not be allowed to immigrate to the United States.
Under the exemptions, U.S. authorities have the discretion to grant people residency in the United States after they have passed background checks and are found to pose no threat to national security.
Congress initially passed waivers to the terrorism bars in 2007 with bipartisan support, and in the years that followed both the Bush and Obama administrations added additional groups and circumstances to the exemptions.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has granted nearly 22,000 TRIG exemptions in total over the last decade, according to the latest data available, which goes through September 2016. The State Department also grants TRIG exemptions, but a spokesman could not provide data on how many.
Refugees from Myanmar are the largest single group of beneficiaries to date of TRIG exemptions granted by USCIS, with more than 6,700 waivers.
The wave of Myanmar refugees dates to 2006, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ruled that thousands of members of the Karen ethnic group, then living in a camp in Thailand, could resettle in the United States, even if they had supported the political wing of an armed group that had fought the country’s military regime.
One high-profile supporter of scrapping the waivers is House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia whose staffers were instrumental in drafting Trump’s travel ban. Goodlatte told Reuters he was “pleased that the Trump Administration is reviewing the dangerous policy.”
Groups favoring stricter immigration laws have also applauded the review. Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, called the waivers “a potential security risk.”
“I personally don’t think that a bureaucrat should be deciding how much support for terrorism is enough to be barred,” she said.
A USCIS spokeswoman, when asked if a recipient of an exemption had ever been involved in a terrorism-related case after arriving in the United States, referred Reuters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which said it was a question for the State Department to answer.
“I don’t know of any cases where beneficiaries of exemptions have gotten into trouble after arriving,” the State Department official said, noting that the department does not typically track people after they arrive in the United States.
Trump’s order to review the waivers “is another example of an attempt to address a non-existent phantom problem,” said Eric Schwartz, who served in the State Department during the Obama administration.
Schwartz and immigration advocates say the waivers are granted after lengthy review and are extremely difficult to get.
“These are case-by-case exemptions for people who represent no threat to the United States but rather have been caught in the most unfortunate of circumstances,” said Schwartz.
For Raj, the initial ruling that his ransom payment supported a terrorist group led to more than two years in U.S. immigration detention, followed by more years of electronic monitoring. His waiver allowed him to bring his wife to the United States after nine years apart. She now studies nursing.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Additional reporting by Julia Edwards in Washington and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin)”
Just to illustrate the lunacy of the already over-broad definition of “terrorist,”all of our “founding fathers” would be “terrorists” under this definition.
I heard a number of so-called”terrorist cases” over my time as a trial judge at the Arlington Immigration Court. A few of the folks on the detained docket (during the years I was assigned to that docket) might have potentially been dangerous.
But, most so-called “terrorists” were basically harmless individuals who actually appeared on my non-detained docket even during the “last years” when I was handling the “non-priority docket” (which was actually the overwhelming majority of cases at Arlington).
Most were folks who had supposedly provided “material support” like giving a ride to a rebel who commandeered the respondent’s car at gun point, carrying supply bags a few miles for guerrillas under threat of death, allowing rebels to ransack the family kitchen at gunpoint (sometimes called the “taco rule”), or giving money to a dissident group that was actually being supported by the U.S. in a battle against an oppressive government” (otherwise referred to as “freedom fighters”).
Most of them had lived in the U.S. for years without incident and were stunned to find out that being a victim of terrorism or helping a dissident group that the U.S. supported could be a bar to immigration. For example, anyone assisting rebels in the fight against the Assad Government or against ISIS would be considered a “terrorist” by our definition. And, ask yourself, why would any “real” terrorist have appeared on my non-detained, non-priority docket?
Of course, as a mere Immigration Judge I could not grant the “waiver” discussed in Mica’s article. But, I was required to make essentially an “advisory holding” that “but for” the “terrorist bar” I would have granted the respondent’s application.
I am aware that some of the cases I handled were referred to USCIS by the Office of Chief Counsel (the respondent can’t initiate the waiver process on her or his own) and eventually granted. Thereafter, I “vacated” on “joint motion” the removal order I had previously entered against the respondent. The whole process seemed convoluted.
Just another example of how the xenophobes in the Trump Administration are wasting time and taxpayer money making an already bad situation even worse.
A further example of how pointless the “terrorist bar” is in it’s current form: many of the individuals covered by the bar would also be entitled to “Deferral of Removal” under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”). The “terrorist bar” can’t be applied to “CAT deferral.” Therefore, individuals who are denied asylum but qualify for CAT deferral can’t be removed from the country. In effect, all that the terrorist bar does in such cases is keep individuals who are no threat to the U.S. in “limbo,” rather than allowing them to regularize their immigration status.
“President Donald Trump’s federal hiring freeze will not apply to immigration court judges under an exception for positions that are needed for national security and public safety, the Executive Office for Immigration Review told Reuters on Friday.
The Trump administration has called for faster removal of immigrants in the United States illegally, but immigration courts, which rule on asylum applications and deportation appeals, are weighed down by a record backlog of more than 542,000 cases.
On Jan. 23, Trump froze hiring for all federal government positions, except for military personnel and in some other limited circumstances.
New Attorney General Jeff Sessions “determined that Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) positions can continue to be filled,” EOIR spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly told Reuters in an email response to questions about the freeze.
“As such, EOIR is continuing to advertise and fill positions nationwide for immigration judges and supporting staff,” Mattingly said. The immigration courts are run by the Justice Department, unlike federal courts which are independent.”
As noted in the article, there are approximately 50 individuals already in the judicial hiring process. It isn’t clear if these individuals will be appointed or whether the Administration will choose instead to start the process over again. As noted in the article, the process, as currently designed and administered, is lengthy, often taking a year or more. Interestingly, that’s probably as long or longer than it takes to get an average Article III judicial appointee through the Senate confirmation process.