chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Immigration Matters: A fairer process is needed for those seeking entry to the U.S.

by Bob Carlson

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

These words from an Emma Lazarus sonnet, engraved on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, are not policy or law. Yet they embody the ideals and spirit of America, a land of immigrants.

Despite the countless ways that immigrants have advanced our country and have helped to fuel innovation and growth, the United States cannot welcome everyone who yearns to breathe free. Our nation needs to regulate and control immigration, have secure borders and keep people safe. But developing clear, comprehensive, practical and humane immigration law is possible—and long overdue.

Policies that separate children from their parents or deny legitimate asylum-seekers due process violate both our values and established law. The ABA has made this clear in a letter sent to the U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security. The ABA has suggested guidelines and compiled thoughtful and well-researched publications such as the recently updated “Standards for the Custody, Placement and Care; Legal Representation; and Adjudication of Unaccompanied Alien Children in the United States.”

While crafting comprehensive immigration law in a divided society can be difficult, it is imperative. One place to start is immigration courts.

An independent judiciary is a hallmark of our democracy. It encompasses the principle that all people are entitled to fair and impartial legal proceedings where important rights are at stake. Immigration courts decide issues that are life-altering.

Immigration courts, however, lack the safeguards that other parts of our justice system have. Structural and procedural issues have resulted in a backlog of more than 800,000 cases even though in recent years Congress has added resources, including a sizable increase in the number of judges and support staff.

Immigration courts currently exist within the Justice Department. Their personnel and operations are subject to direct control of the attorney general. Immigration judges can be removed without cause and can be at the mercy of whatever policy the attorney general wants followed. It can change from administration to administration. This structure creates a fatal flaw to an independent, impartial judiciary.

Restructuring the immigration adjudication system into an Article I court is the best solution to promote independence, impartiality, efficiency and accountability. Article I legislative courts are established by Congress, and judges would only be subject to removal for cause and not without judicial review. The U.S. Tax Court—where judges are nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate and serve terms of 15 years—could act as a model. The idea has been endorsed by the National Association of Immigration Judges for more than two decades. The ABA adopted policy in 2010 calling for the creation of Article I immigration courts.

Another problem is representation. Access to counsel and legal information are critical in ensuring fairness and efficiency in the immigration system, yet only 37 percent of people in removal proceedings and just 14 percent of those detained are represented by counsel. The odds of winning an asylum case without legal representation are one in 10 while those with a lawyer win nearly 50 percent of their cases.

The ABA supports the right to appointed counsel for vulnerable populations in immigration proceedings, such as unaccompanied children, and mentally ill and indigent immigrants. Budgetary challenges make this unlikely to happen soon, so access to as much information about the process is critical.

The ABA, supported by its Commission on Immigration, will continue to advocate for fairness and full due process for immigrants and asylum-seekers in the United States and ensure an equitable, effective process for adjudicating immigration cases. This serves the interest of both the government and individuals within the system.

Our efforts to solve the problems must not undermine the fundamental principles that exemplify America and our justice system. Welcoming immigrants has been a strength of America since its founding.

As President George Washington said: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

Follow President Carlson on Twitter @ABAPresident or email [email protected].

This President's Message was published in the March 2019 ABA Journal .