Julia writes for The Marshall Project:
“. . . .
And so in this gateway city on the Rio Grande [Laredo], inside a building rimmed with barbed wire, past security guards and locked doors, immigration judges on short details started hearing cases in a cramped courtroom that was hastily arranged in March.
But seven months later, the case of Oscar Arnulfo Ramírez, an immigrant from El Salvador, was not going quickly. He was sitting in detention, waiting for a hearing on his asylum claim. And waiting some more.
The court files, his lawyer discovered, showed that Ramírez’s case had been completed and closed two months earlier. Since the case was closed, the court clerk couldn’t schedule a new hearing to get it moving again. In fact, the clerk didn’t even have a record that he was still detained.
“It’s as if he’s non-existent,” his lawyer,, said. “He’s still in a detention center. He’s still costing the government and the American people tax dollars. But there’s no proceeding going on. He’s just sitting there doing completely nothing.”
Ramírez’s case was one of many signs of disarray in the improvised court in Laredo, which emerged during a weeklong visit in late October by a reporter from The Marshall Project and a radio producer from This American Life. Instead of the efficiency the Trump administration sought, the proceedings were often chaotic. Hearing schedules were erratic, case files went missing. Judges were exasperated by confusion and delays. Like Ramírez, detainees were lost in the system for months on end.
For a view of the border crossing in Laredo and the grinding process migrants begin there, check out Kirsten Luce’s photosfrom the gateway on the Rio Grande.
With the intense pressure on the court to finish cases, immigrants who had run from frightening threats in their home countries were deported without having a chance to tell the stories that might have persuaded a judge to let them stay.
. . . .
For Paola Tostado, the lawyer, Ramírez was not the first client to fall through the cracks in Laredo. Even though she is based in Brownsville, three hours away, Tostado was making the pre-dawn drive up the highway as many as three times a week, to appear next to her clients in court in Laredo whenever she could.
Another Salvadoran asylum-seeker she represented, whose case was similarly mislaid, had gone for four months with no hearing and no prospect of having one. Eventually he despaired. When ICE officers presented him with a document agreeing to deportation, without consulting Tostado he had signed it.
“I’ve had situations where we come to an individual client who has been detained over six months and the file is missing,” she said. “It’s not in San Antonio. It’s not in Laredo. So where is it? Is it on the highway?”
In her attempts to free Ramírez, Tostado consulted with the court clerk in San Antonio, with the ICE prosecutors and officers detaining him, but no one could say how to get the case started again.
Then, one day after reporters sat in the courtroom and spoke with Tostado about the case, ICE released him to pursue his case in another court, without explanation.
But by December Tostado had two other asylum-seekers who had been stalled in the system for more than seven months. She finally got the court to schedule hearings for them in the last days of the year.
“I think the bottom line is, there’s no organization in this Laredo court,” Tostado said. “It’s complete chaos and at the end of the day it’s not fair. Because you have clients who say, I just want to go to court. If it’s a no, it’s a no. If it’s a yes, it’s a yes.”
Unlike criminal court, in immigration court people have no right to a lawyer paid by the government. But there was no reliable channel in Laredo for immigrants confined behind walls to connect with low-cost lawyers. Most lawyers worked near the regular courts in the region, at least two hours’ drive away.
Sandra Berrios, another Salvadoran seeking asylum, learned the difference a lawyer could make. She found one only by the sheerest luck. After five months in detention, she was days away from deportation when she was cleaning a hallway in the center, doing a job she had taken to keep busy. A lawyer walked by. Berrios blurted a plea for help.
The lawyer was from a corporate law firm, Jones Day, which happened to be offering free services. Two of its lawyers, Christopher Maynard and Adria Villar, took on her case. They learned that Berrios had been a victim of vicious domestic abuse. A Salvadoran boyfriend who had brought her to the United States in 2009 had turned on her a few years later when he wanted to date other women.
Once he had punched her in the face in a Walmart parking lot, prompting bystanders to call the police. He had choked her, burned her legs with cigarettes, broken her fingers and cut her hands with knives. Berrios had scars to show the judge. She had a phone video she had made when the boyfriend was attacking her and records of calls to the Laredo police.
The lawyers also learned that the boyfriend had returned to El Salvador to avoid arrest, threatening to kill Berrios if he ever saw her there.
She had started a new relationship in Texas with an American citizen who wanted to marry her. But she’d been arrested by the Border Patrol at a highway checkpoint when the two of them were driving back to Laredo from an outing at a Gulf Coast beach.
After Berrios been detained for nine months, at a hearing in July with Maynard arguing her case, a judge canceled her deportation and let her stay. In a later interview, Berrios gave equal parts credit to God and the lawyers. “I would be in El Salvador by this time, already dead,” she said. “The judges before that just wanted to deport me.”
. . . .
We have heard frustration across the board,” said Ashley Tabaddor, a judge from Los Angeles who is the association [NAIJ] president. She and other union officials clarified that their statements did not represent the views of the Justice Department. “We’ve definitely heard from our members,” she said, “where they’ve had to reset hundreds of cases from their home docket to go to detention facilities where the docket was haphazardly scheduled, where the case might not have been ready, where the file has not reached the facility yet.”
Another association official, Lawrence Burman, a judge who normally sits in Arlington, Va., volunteered for a stint in a detention center in the rural Louisiana town of Jena, 220 miles northwest of New Orleans. Four judges were sent, Burman said, but there was only enough work for two.
“So I had a lot of free time, which was pretty useless in Jena, Louisiana,” Burman said. “All of us in that situation felt very bad that we have cases back home that need to be done. But in Jena I didn’t have any of my files.” Once he had studied the cases before him in Jena, Burman said, he was left to “read the newspaper or my email.”
The impact on Burman’s case docket back in Arlington was severe. Dozens of cases he was due to hear during the weeks he was away had to be rescheduled, including some that had been winding through the court and were ready for a final decision. But with the enormous backlog in Arlington, Burman had no openings on his calendar before November 2020.
Immigrants who had already waited years to know whether they could stay in the country now would wait three years more. Such disruptions were reported in other courts, including some of the nation’s largest in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.
“Many judges came back feeling that their time was not wisely used,” Judge Tabaddor, the association president, said, “and it was to the detriment of their own docket.”
Justice Department officials say they are pleased with the results of the surge. A department spokesman, Devin O’Malley, did not comment for this story but pointed to congressional testimony by James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. “Viewed holistically, the immigration judge mobilization has been a success,” he said, arguing it had a “positive net effect on nationwide caseloads.”
Justice Department officials calculated that judges on border details completed 2700 more cases than they would have if they had remained in home courts. Officials acknowledge that the nationwide caseload continued to rise during last year, reaching 657,000 cases by December. But they noted that the rate of growth had slowed, to .39 percent monthly increase at the end of the year from 3.39 percent monthly when Trump took office.
Judge Tabaddor, the association president, said the comparison was misleading: cases of immigrants in detention, like the ones the surge judges heard, always take priority and go faster than cases of people out on release, she said. Meanwhile, according to records obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center, as many as 22,000 hearings in judges’ home courts had to be rescheduled in the first three months of the surge alone, compounding backlogs.
. . . .”
Read Julia’s complete article at the above link. Always enjoy getting quotes from my former Arlington colleague Judge Lawrence O. (“The Burmanator”) Burman. He tends to “tell it like it is” in the fine and time-honored Arlington tradition of my now retired Arlington colleague Judge Wayne R. Iskra. And, Judge Iskra didn’t even have the “cover” of being an officer of the NAIJ. Certainly beats the “pabulum” served up by the PIO at the “Sessionized” EOIR!
Also, kudos to one of my “former firms” Jones Day, its National Managing Partner Steve Brogan, and the Global Pro Bono Counsel Laura Tuell for opening the Laredo Office exclusively for pro bono immigration representation, As firms like jones Day take the “immigration litigation field,” and give asylum applicants the “A+ representation” they need and deserve, I predict that it’s going to become harder for the Article III U.S. Courts to ignore the legal shortcomings of the Immigration Courts under Sessions.
A brief aside. My friend Laura Tuell was a “Guest Professor” during a session of my Immigration Law & Policy class at Georgetown Law last June. On the final exam, one of my students wrote that Laura had inspired him or her to want a career embodying values like hers! Wow! Talk about making a difference on many levels!And talk about the difference in representing real values as opposed to the legal obfuscation and use of the legal system to inflict wanton cruelty represented by Sessions and his restrictionist ilk.
We also should recognize the amazing dedication and efforts of pro bono and “low bono” lawyers like Paola Tostado, mentioned in Julia’s report. “Even though she is based in Brownsville, three hours away, Tostado was making the pre-dawn drive up the highway as many as three times a week, to appear next to her clients in court in Laredo whenever she could.” What do you think that does to her law practice? As I’ve said before, folks like Paola Tostado, Christopher Maynard, Adria Villar, and Laura Tuell are the “real heroes” of Due Process in the Immigraton Court system.
Compare the real stories of desperate, bona fide asylum seekers and their hard-working dedicated lawyers being “stiffed” and mistreated in the Immigration Court with Sessions’s recent false narrative to EOIR about an asylum system rife with fraud promoted by “dirty attorneys.” Sessions’s obvious biases against migrants, both documented and undocumented, and particularly against Latino asylum seekers on the Southern Border, make him glaringly unqualified to be either our Attorney General or in charge of our U.S. Immigration Court system.
No amount of “creative book-cooking” by EOIR and the DOJ can disguise the human and due process disaster unfolding here. This is exactly what I mean when I refer to “”Aimless Docket Reshuffling” (“ADR”), and it’s continuing to increase the Immigration Court backlogs (now at a stunning 660,000) notwithstanding that there are now more Immigration Judges on duty than there were at the end of the last Administration.
I’ll admit upfront to not being very good at statistics and to being skeptical about what they show us. But, let’s leave the “Wonderful World of EOIR” for a minute and go on over to TRAC for a “reality check” on how “Trumpism” is really working in the Immigration Courts. http://trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/court_backlog/apprep_backlog.php
On September 30, 2016, near the end of the Obama Administration, the Immigration Court backlog stood at a whopping 516,000! Not good!
But, now let go to Nov. 30, 2017, a period of 14 months later, 10 of these full months under the policies of the Trump Administration. The backlog has mushroomed to a stunning 659,000 cases — a gain of 153,000 in less than two years! And, let’s not forget, that’s with more Immigration Judges on board!
By contrast, during the last two full years of the Obama Administration — September 30, 2014 to September 30, 2016 — the backlog rose from 408,000 to 516,000. Nothing to write home about — 108,000 — but not nearly as bad as the “Trump era” has been to date!
Those who know me, know that I’m no “fan” of the Obama Administration’s stewardship over the U.S. Immigration Courts. Wrongful and highly politicized “prioritization” of recently arrived children, women, and families from the Northern Triangle resulted in “primo ADR” that sent the system into a tailspin that has only gotten worse. And, the glacial two-year cycle for the hiring of new Immigration Judges was totally inexcusable.
But, the incompetence and disdain for true Due Process by the Trump Administration under Sessions is at a whole new level. It’s clearly “Amateur Night at the Bijou” in what is perhaps the nation’s largest Federal Court system. And, disturbingly, nobody except a few of us “Immigration Court Groupies” seems to care.
So, it looks like we’re going to have to stand by and watch while Sessions “implodes” or “explodes” the system. Then, folks might take notice. Because the collapse of the U.S. Immigration Courts is going to take a big chunk of the Article III Federal Judiciary with it.
Why? Because approximately 80% of the administrative review petitions in the U.S. Courts of Appeals are generated by the BIA. That’s over 10% of the total caseload. And, in Circuits like the 9th Circuit, it’s a much higher percentage.
The U.S. Immigration Judges will continue to be treated like “assembly line workers” and due process will be further short-shrifted in the “pedal faster” atmosphere intentionally created by Sessions and McHenry. The BIA, in turn, will be pressured to further “rubber stamp” the results as long as they are removal orders. The U.S. Courts of Appeals, and in some cases the U.S. District Courts, are going to be left to clean up the mess created by Sessions & co.
We need an independent Article I U.S. Immigration Court with competent, unbiased judicial administration focused on insuring individuals’ Due Process now! We’re ignoring the obvious at our country’s peril!