We Need An Article I United States Immigration Court — NOW

We Need An Article I United States Immigration Court — NOW — Could The Impetus Come From An Unlikely Source?

By Paul Wickham Schmidt

Writing in The Hill, my friend Nolan Rappaport says:

“President-elect Donald Trump will have to deal with this situation before he can begin his promised enforcement program.
Realistically, he is going to have to consider asking Congress for a legalization program to reduce the undocumented population but it does not have to be the kind of legalization program that the Democrats have been proposing.”

That makes lots of sense to me. It will certainly help the Immigration Courts to quickly remove many “non priority” cases from the docket without compromising due process. But, it’s not a complete solution to the problems facing our Immigration Courts.

And, well-respected scholar, gentleman, and former GOP Hill Immigration Staffer Peter Levinsion succinctly tells us why just fiddling around with the administrative process within the DOJ won’t get the job done:

“”The Attorney General’s ability to review Board decisions inappropriately injects a law enforcement official into a quasi-judicial appellate process, creates an unnecessary layer of review, compromises the appearance of independent Board decision-making, and undermines the Board’s stature generally.””

Yup, folks, the U.S. Immigration Courts, including the all-important Appellate Division (the Board of Immigration Appeals, or the “BIA”), where hundreds of thousands of individuals are awaiting the fair, independent due process hearings guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution, are actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the chief prosecutor and law enforcement officer of the U.S. — the Attorney General.

Who wouldn’t like to own a court system where your only client — the U.S. Government — is an interested party in every single case? Who wouldn’t, indeed, unless that court system is in the sad circumstances of the current U.S. Immigration Court system — overworked, understaffed, over-prioritized, under-appreciated, laboring under outdated systems and technology abandoned by most other courts decades ago, and generally out of control. Other than that, what’s the problem?

The answer, as proposed by Nolan and Peter, and many others including the Federal Bar Association, the American Bar Association, the National Association of Immigration Judges, and many other nonpartisan judicial experts is an independent Article I (or even Article III) Immigration Court, including the Appellate Division.

“Impossible,” you say, “Congress and President Trump will never go for it. Nobody in the Washington ‘power curve’ could sell this idea.” But, I beg to disagree.

There is one person in Washington who could sell this long overdue idea to President Trump and legislators from both sides of the aisle. His name is Jeff Sessions. And, he’s about to become the next Attorney General of the United Sates.

Why would Attorney General Jeff Sessions suddenly become an advocate for due process and “good government?” Well, I can think of at least three obvious reasons.

First, being the “father” of an Article I Immigration Court would be a lasting positive contribution to our system of justice — not a bad legacy for a man who has been “on the wrong side of history” for much of his four decades of public service. Second, it would silence many of the critics who have doubted Sessions’s claims that he can overcome his “out of the mainstream” views of the past and protect and vindicate the rights of everyone in America, particularly in the sensitive areas of immigration and civil rights. Third, and perhaps most important, by creating an independent, credible, modern, due process oriented Immigration Court outside the Department of Justice, Sessions would pave the way for a more effective immigration enforcement strategy by the Administration while dramatically increasing the likelihood that removal orders will pass muster in the Article III Courts.

Sure sounds like a “win-win-win” to me. I’ve observed that the majority of the time, people act in accordance with their own best interests which frequently line up with the best interests of our country as a whole. Yes, there will always be a substantial minority of instances where people act against their best interests. Usually, that’s when they are blinded by an uncompromising philosophy or personal animus.

I can’t find much of the latter in Senator Sessions. He seems like a genuinely genial personality who makes it a point to get along with folks and treat them politely even when they disagree with his views. The former could be a problem for Sessions, however. Can he get beyond his highly restrictive outlook on immigration and adopt big-picture reforms? Only time will tell. But there is a precedent.

EOIR was actually created during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was two “strong enforcement types,” then INS Commissioner Al Nelson and General Counsel “Iron Mike” Inman, Jr., part of the so-called “California Mafia,” who persuaded then Attorney General William French Smith to remove the Immigration Judges from the “Legacy INS,” and combine them with the Board of Immigration Appeals to form EOIR, with then-BIA Chairman David Milhollan as the first EOIR Director. Smith selected as the first Chief Immigration Judge a well-respected (even if not universally beloved) apolitical Senior Executive, William R. Robie, who had run the Department’s Office of Attorney Personnel Management and had a well-deserved reputation in the Washington legal community for “getting the trains running on time.”

It was one of the few times in my more that three decades in Government that I witnessed Senior Political Executives actually arguing for a needed transfer of functions and personnel out of their own agency. Traditionally, agency heads battled furiously to hang on to any piece of “turf,” no matter how problematic its performance or how tangental it was to the agency’s mission. But, Nelson and Inman, who were litigators and certainly no “softies” on immigration enforcement, appreciated that for victories in Immigration Court to be meaningful and to stand up on further judicial review, the Immigration Court needed to be a level playing field that would be credible to those outside the Department of Justice.

Unfortunately, the immediate improvements in due process and court management achieved by making the Immigration Courts independent from the “Legacy INS” have long since “played out.” The system within the DOJ not only reached a point of diminishing returns, but has actually been spiraling downward over the past two Administrations. Sadly, Nelson, Inman, Milhollan, and Robie have all died in the interim. But, it would be a great way to honor their memories, in the spirit of bipartisan reform and “smart government,” if an Article I Immigration Court were high on Attorney General Sessions’s agenda.