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ABA: Resources Needed for Immigration Courts

The nation’s immigration system is in “crisis” with courts struggling to cope with mounting caseloads, an American Bar Association representative told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Our immigration system is in crisis, overburdened and under-resourced, leading to the frustration of those responsible for its administration and endangering due process for those who appear before it,” Karen Grisez, chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration, told the panel written testimony, according to an ABA Journal article.

Between 1996 and 2009 the number of non-citizens removed from the country increased more than 450 percent, she testified, without any commensurate additional resources for immigration courts.

The ABA has urged U.S. lawmakers to eliminate the existing immigration courts system and replace it with a new, independent court. You can learn more about those ABA recommendations from Gavel Grab. The ABA is a Justice at Stake partner.

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Record Backlog in Immigration Courts

Just how clogged are the nation’s immigration courts? They face “the largest backlog of pending deportation and asylum cases in history,” the Houston Chronicle reports in an article drawing heavily on new information from a Syracuse University-based data research institute.

The backlog of cases nationwide reached an all time high of 228,421 in the first months of fiscal 2010, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), up 82 percent from a decade ago.

Immigrants’ wait for action has been pushed to an average of 439 days, with extremes for pending cases of an average 713 days in Los Angeles and 612 days in Boston immigration courts. Some other immigration courts are at the other end of the spectrum, however, with average waits of 75 days in Florence, Arizona and 82 days in Miami.

TRAC said the failure of the Bush and Obama administrations to fill judicial vacancies on the immigration courts was key to the increasing backlogs, and that one of six judicial positions is vacant.

A related article in Harvard Law Record gives an immigration attorney’s first-person account of delays in the immigration courts and is headlined, “U.S. Funds immigration cops, not courts: The justice system is too focused on punishing immigrants, rather than protecting their rights.”

Members of the American Bar Association recently voted in support of the idea of creating a new, independent immigration court system to replace the one that now is a part of the U.S. Justice Department. You can learn more by clicking on Gavel Grab.

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Times Editorial Deplores 'Clogged Immigration Courts'

A recent vote by members of the American Bar Association in support of creating an independent court system to handle immigration cases grabbed attention in border states and some states with overloaded immigration courts (see Gavel Grab.)

Now the New York Times has spotlighted the endorsement in an editorial advocating what the Times calls long overdue action by Congress to enact comprehensive reform of immigration law.

As the nation engages in an “endless wait for reform,” the editorial states, what has happened “has been ugly:”

The administration has doubled down on the Bush-era enforcement strategy, unleashing the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement agencies and setting loose an epidemic of misery, racial profiling and needless arrests.

The intense campaign of raids and deportations has so clogged the immigration courts that the American Bar Association has proposed creating an independent court system that presumably would be better able to command adequate resources.

The existing immigration courts are part of the Justice Department, and the judges work for the U.S. attorney general.

You can learn more about the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, and the erosion of courts’ ability to protect individual rights, from Justice at Stake’s issues page.

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In Tennessee, An Overloaded Immigration Court

There is no let-up in the parade of reports about overburdened immigration courts facing huge caseloads and long docket delays.

The latest comes from The Tennesseean. It reports that since one of two Memphis-based immigration judges was reassigned recently to Virginia, the remaining judge hears cases in a Memphis courtroom–while other cases are heard by other judges around the country, using teleconference technology. All told, the newspaper reported, the court is overburdened:

“The immigration court has such a heavy caseload that hundreds of people recommended for deportation haven’t even been given a court date yet. They line up monthly at local immigration offices, where suspected illegal immigrants are asked to check in until a court date can be set.

“After three years of stepped-up immigration enforcement, the overloaded court system isn’t keeping pace — and observers say almost nowhere in the country is the problem worse than in Tennessee.”

A recent report for the American Bar Association documented a crushing overload for the immigration courts, and severe shortcomings (see Gavel Grab.) Read more

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'Credibility' of Immigration Courts at Stake?

Newly published media reports continue to highlight an important study done for the American Bar Association about the nation’s immigration courts, and the crushing overload and shortcomings they face.

In the Palm Beach Post, the author of a commentary quoted Marisol Zequiera, an immigration lawyer, as underscoring questions raised in the report:

“At stake here is the credibility of the courts…If they don’t have independence and neutrality, then there’s no reason to believe they can deliver justice.”

The commentary author, Dan Moffett, raised another concern for policy-makers after reviewing the study. He wrote, “Immigration politics trump immigration justice too many times.”

A detailed article by IPS News spotlighted the study’s conclusion that the current deportation system “is severely flawed and fails to afford fair process to all non-citizens facing deportation from the United States.” The article sought to alert readers about the dramatic changes, and burdens, facing the system:

“The number of people deported from the U.S. annually has grown from just over 69,000 to over 356,000 in the past eight years, while resource-starved immigration judges issue decisions without sufficient time to conduct legal research and analyse the complex cases they are asked to decide.”

The bar association voted in support of the idea of creating a new, independent court system to replace the one that now is a part of the U.S. Justice Department. You can learn more by clicking on Gavel Grab.

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AZ: Immigration Case Backlog Causes Delay of Years

The threat to impartial justice in the immigration courts is illustrated by an investigative report in the Arizona Republic focusing on the situation in that border state.

The newspaper reports two conclusions: heightened enforcement  is “undermining the ability of judges to rule fairly because they are under growing pressure to decide cases quickly;” and the case backlog that has been created is so severe that in Phoenix, at least, it “will take years for judges to decide whether immigrants facing deportation can legally stay in the U.S.”

In Arizona, crackdowns on illegal immigration have been especially intense. The immigration court in Phoenix received 4,867 new cases in the past fiscal year, up 12 percent from a year earlier; the senior of three immigration judges was scheduling in January final hearings in immigrant removal cases for August 2013.

Last week, the American Bar Association voted to urge U.S. lawmakers to eliminate the existing immigration courts system and replace it with a new, independent court (see Gavel Grab). Immigration judges are not part of the federal judiciary, but work for the Justice Department–which also employs prosecutors in the immigration courts.

“The immigration courts are basically dealing with life and death issues but with the resources of traffic courts,” said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a partner of Justice at Stake. The Chicago group issued a report in June declaring that because of the flood of new cases, immigration judges can’t do their job properly.

To learn more, check out Justice at Stake’s issues page.

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ABA Vote Backs Idea of New Immigration Court

The American Bar Association is urging U.S. lawmakers to eliminate the existing immigration courts system–one that is faced with growing backlogs, a huge caseload and overburdened judges–and replace it with a new, independent court.

A New York Times article recounts a vote of the lawyers association, a partner of Justice at Stake, at its semiannual meeting and also goes further to explain the ABA’s support for a new, independent system like the federal courts that decide tax cases:

“Behind the seemingly arcane proposal was a portrait of the nation’s immigration courts besieged with new cases arising from an intensified federal crackdown on illegal immigration, and challenged by critics who doubt the courts’ impartiality.”

These courts have become “an overwhelmed system choked by an exploding caseload,” said Lawrence Schneider,  a main author of  a report submitted to the ABA. You can read an executive summary of the report by clicking here, and an ABA press release about it here.

According to the Times, the report pointed to an average caseload per immigration judge of more than 1,200, or three times the load carried by a federal district court judge. As case backloads rise, more immigrants are stuck in expensive detention, the report said.

These other major problems facing the immigration courts were highlighted by the ABA press release:

  • “Significant disparities in rates of favorable decisions indicate that respondents’ chances of success are highly dependent upon the judges before whom they appear rather than the merits of their case.
  • “Courts face public skepticism and a low level of respect for the process due in part to their lack of independence from the Department of Justice.”

The existing immigration courts are part of the Justice Department, and the judges work for the U.S. attorney general.

You can learn more about the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, and the erosion of courts’ ability to protect individual rights, from Justice at Stake’s issues page.

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Articles Urge Immigration Reform, Cite Due Process Concerns


Two commentaries have likened conditions for captured immigrants to those of detainees at Guantanamo and called on the new administration to improve the hearing process used in illegal-immigration cases.

“Just as President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the cases at Guantanamo, it is high time that he take a look at the immigrants who have been convicted in sham trials and housed within the U.S. borders,” declared Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez, a research associate at the Mexican American Studies & Research Center at the University of Arizona.

In a commentary for New America Media, Rodriguez argued that while immigration issues may not currently be at the forefront of the White House agenda, serious changes must be made in terms of immigration trials as well as the detention facilities. Although President Obama has condemned torture and ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay, grave civil rights violations continue to occur as immigrants are denied fair trials and are housed in inhumane prisons, he said.

Each day, 70 immigrants are convicted in judicial proceedings within an hour at a federal court. The process is commonly known as “Operation Streamline,” and Rodriguez said it makes a “mockery” of a judicial system that depends on public confidence and a faithful adherence to the rule of law. In other states, he said, thousands of immigrants are imprisoned and stripped of their due process rights.

According to another New America Media commentary, Roberto Lovato, a Read more

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • When judges are elected, it allows corporations to influence the outcome of the law through campaign contributions, making it difficult for an individual to achieve justice against a powerful company. Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress writes that big businesses are now spending millions of dollars to elect judges that have sided with corporations over individual Americans.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court’s rationale behind its decision in Bush v. Gore was  “unacceptable,” said former Justice John Paul Stevens during a gala event  for Public Citizen. According to a Slate article, Stevens said that all votes in the election should have been considered the same way.
  • Former immigration lawyer William Orrick III was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the federal district court in San Francisco on Wednesday. The senators confirmed him on a 56-41 vote, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, with only three Republicans voting in his favor.
  • This week, a second federal appeals court ruled that President Barack Obama had overstepped his power when he made recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. A Fox News article states that the ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia could stall the actions of the labor agency.
  • Five candidates are in the running for  two seats on the Fayette County, Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, and some candidates have spent less than $10,000 while others have spent more than $130,000 apiece. The candidates will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots in the primary, and the top two candidates from each party will appear on the general election ballot, according to the Herald-Standard.
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Essay: A Risk to the Courts When Judges Act Like Bloggers

With sometimes caustic or seemingly partisan remarks from the bench, more judges and Supreme Court justices are behaving like bloggers instead of neutral jurists, Jeffrey Rosen warns in an intriguing Politico essay.

There is a potential cost for fair and impartial courts when Supreme Court justices, addressing the constitutionality of the health care law, begin using metaphors about broccoli that once were employed by Internet pundits, contends the law professor at George Washington University:

“[W]hen when lower court judges and justices act like partisan legal pundits, faith in the neutrality of the courts can only decline.”

“Judges who act like bloggers and pundits are putting their own ideological agendas above the long-term institutional interests of the courts on which they serve.”

Read more

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