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June 01, 2018

Panelists debate how to fix a broken immigration court system

America’s immigration justice system is broken. The case backlog is huge – nearly 700,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers are waiting for hearings or decisions – technology is old and there aren’t enough judges.

All five panelists agreed on that much at a May 4 discussion of how to reform immigration courts sponsored by the ABA Commission on Immigration and held at the Washington, D.C., office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobs. They disagreed on who broke the system and how to fix it.

Several panelists accused Congress of underfunding the courts and the Justice Department of politicizing them. The head of the federal office that oversees immigration courts said he is working to cut down the backlog and hire more judges.

James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), said the agency will hire 150 additional judges and the hiring process will be much shorter than it has been. It previously took two years to hire new immigration judges. It now takes less than a year, McHenry said.

Three panelists – a sitting judge, a retired judge and an immigrant advocate – criticized EOIR’s handling of the courts. All three said the courts should be removed from the Justice Department and become independent.

Judge Denise Slavin of Baltimore, representing the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the immigration system deserves a grade of D or D-minus. “The system is failing, there is no doubt about it,” she said.

The two biggest problems, she said, are the backlogs and public perception that the courts are unfair. The backlog, Slavin said, was caused by “years of fiscal neglect” by both political parties. “Enforcement has been funded at levels that the courts have not.”

Slavin also accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of politicizing the immigration courts. “It does not help matters much when our attorney general states to the press that we are being sent to the border to deport people. Not to hear cases, to deport people,” Slavin said.

She also criticized Sessions’ recent order that all immigration judges must clear at least 700 cases a year to get a “satisfactory” rating on their performance evaluations. No other American courts have such a quota, she said. “The only other court that we found that has that is in the People’s Republic of China,” Slavin said.

Retired immigration judge Paul Schmidt, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, accused the Justice Department of “aimless docket reshuffling” and of having  a “morbid fascination with increased immigration detention as a means of deterrence.” These actions “have turned our immigration court system back into a tool of DHS (Department of Homeland Security) enforcement,” he said.

Schmidt said the Trump administration has shown “unprecedented levels of open disdain and disrespect” for pro bono lawyers and immigration judges – “the two groups that are struggling to keep due process afloat in the immigration courts.”

He urged the audience to “join the new due process army and stand up for truth, justice and the American way in our failing, misused and politically abused United States immigration courts.” That earned the only applause of the morning.

Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, also accused the Justice Department of political interference in the immigration courts. “We are faced today with an administration that, at the very highest levels of leadership, is using rhetoric designed to reframe the goals and mission of our immigration court system,” she said. “The politicization of the immigration court system is particularly harmful because the courts are meant to be neutral bodies.”

McHenry said his agency is fixing the court system. Document e-filing will roll out nationally next year, he said. He denied Slavin’s accusation that judicial hiring is politicized. Merit hiring “will be the standard as long as I’m the director,” said McHenry, who was appointed by Sessions in January.

In addition to hiring more judges, EOIR will shorten the backlog by using more teleconferencing, bringing back retired judges and re-examining all its policies, McHenry said. He said he sees no conflict between making the system more efficient and providing due process. “We believe judges can do both.”

The panel was moderated by Karen Grisez, special adviser to the ABA Commission on Immigration and public service counsel at Fried Frank.

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