June 1, 2012
The Obama administration has improved the U.S. immigration court system, but much remains to be done, according to “Reimagining the Immigration Court Assembly Line: Transformative Change for the Immigration Justice System,” our new report completed with Chicago Appleseed and pro bono counsel Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Latham & Watkins.
The report updates Appleseed’s “Assembly Line Injustice: Blueprint to Reform America’s Immigration Courts,” which evaluated the accuracy, legitimacy and efficiency of the immigration courts in 2009. In eight of nine categories, grades went up, but sometimes only from a D to a D+ or C-.
“This investigation builds on work begun several years ago at Chicago Appleseed, and the Chicago immigration courts have implemented some important changes,” said Chicago Appleseed Executive Director Malcolm Rich. “Appleseed and its network of Centers are known for digging into tough issues. The changes we suggest are not only do-able, but essential for justice. People can disagree on many immigration issues, but few would disagree that courts should be fair for all.”
“Everyone in the system must step away from their spots on the assembly line and be held accountable for making immigration courts fair and efficient,” said Appleseed Executive Director Betsy Cavendish. “The relentless onslaught of cases makes the provision of justice for each individual difficult. That’s why change is necessary.”
“The administration’s improvements are welcome, but in order to ensure consistent and just treatment of those subject to the U.S. immigration court system, constructive change must continue until immigrants are no longer denied due process and a fair hearing because of their unfamiliarity with the system or the system’s own inadequacies,” stated Akin Gump Pro Bono Partner Steven Schulman.
The nine evaluated areas are:
1. Reforming the Immigration Judge Selection Process — Political influence in selection has abated, but the immigration bench needs greater diversity. 2009 D; 2012 B-
2. Giving Immigration Judges the Tools to Achieve Justice — The number of judges has increased by 22 percent since 2009, but the caseload has increased by 48 percent. 2009 D; 2012 D+
3. Cultivating Professionalism in Immigration Court— The Department of Justice (DOJ) has improved judicial professionalism through training and discipline, though some practitioners report instances of unprofessional conduct on the bench. 2009 D; 2012 B-
4. Empowering DHS Trial Attorneys — The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adopted a new prosecutorial discretion policy, but it has not yet yielded meaningful results. 2009 D; 2012 C+
5. Providing Effective Interpretation — Too many poor translators and incomplete translations put non-English-speaking immigrants at a serious disadvantage. 2009 D; 2012 D+
6. Reducing the Unfairness of Videoconferencing – Here, the immigration courts continued to earn an F for increasing their reliance on unfair videoconferencing. 2009 F; 2012 F
7. Improve the Reliability of Court Records — DOJ has upgraded its hearing recording system, but immigrants still face unnecessary hurdles to obtain their immigration files from DHS. 2009 F; 2012 C-
8. Helping the Unrepresented — DOJ has significantly improved access to counsel and information, but far too many immigrants still appear in court without a lawyer. 2009 F; 2012 C-
9. Getting it Right on Appeal — The Board of Immigration Appeals has weaned itself off “affirmances without opinion,” but still does not issue enough precedential opinions or make other decisions public. 2009 D; 2012 C-
“We look forward to working with people of good will in the administration to make further important changes,” said Cavendish. “Change does not magically happen with a report, and we’re not quitting on these issues.”