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Readers of this space know that the practice of immigration law has always presented my colleagues and I with unique and interesting challenges. Over the last three years, however, I would describe most of the challenges practitioners encounter as completely unnecessary. Let me give you an example.
A prospective client walks through my door, tells me her story, and to keep it short and simple, I determine that she’s out of status, has a prior removal order, but if those things weren’t true, she would be able to stay in the United States because she has some other relief that could be available to her (e.g., she originally had a lawful entry and she’s married to a U.S. citizen), but for the previously stated adverse factors.
Generally our advice to this individual might be, let’s get the paperwork prepared and filed for the “relief” that we think you’re eligible for with, e.g., U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) (but for the adverse factors), and then let’s go to the Immigration Court, ask the Immigration Judge (“IJ”) to reopen her prior removal order (for whatever reasons we can come up with, including, possibly, the fact that our prospective client has relief available to her, again but for the adverse factors), and assuming the IJ did reopen the case, then ask the IJ for a continuance (and to place our client’s matter on the Court’s “status docket”) in the Immigration Court proceeding so we can wait for what we think will be a favorable decision by USCIS.
Yesterday (as I write this, it was just yesterday), that last part became unnecessarily more difficult. In a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) issued on January 22, 2020, the BIA held as follows:
In assessing whether to grant an alien’s request for a continuance regarding an application for collateral relief, the alien’s prima facie eligibility for relief and whether it will materially affect the outcome of proceedings are not dispositive, especially where other factors—including the uncertainty as to when the relief will be approved or become available—weigh against granting a continuance.”
Matter of Mayen, 27 I&N Dec. 755 (BIA 2020) (Emphasis added.)
This impacts foreign nationals in many kinds of situations. The example I gave is just one. Here’s another, and no doubt more compelling. Sadly sometimes the prospective client that shows up at your office has been the victim of a crime, such that this individual might be eligible for a “U” nonimmigrant visa. U visas provide temporary and sometimes permanent legal status to victims of an enumerated list of “qualifying criminal activities” who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse, and possess information concerning that crime, and who have been, are being, or are likely to be helpful to law enforcement or government officials.
There are many “qualifying criminal activities” including domestic violence and sexual assault. Here’s the problem. Let’s say my prospective client has a very compelling case to receive a U visa. The problem is the adjudication backlog at USCIS. Right now, the time that it takes for USCIS to process U petitions is more than 4 years, and that assumes that USCIS simply approves (or denies I suppose) your client’s petition. If USCIS sends you a Request for Evidence (“RFE”), which can often be the case, the adjudication time will be substantially longer.
So, back to my prospective client. The quick reaction and consensus of my colleagues and I will be that some or many IJ’s will use the BIA’s decision in Matter of Mayen as a means to unclog their docket. Attorneys will then be forced to unnecessarily appeal adverse decisions of these IJ’s to the BIA, the BIA will likely affirm the IJ’s decision, and then our clients will be forced to appeal further to a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, depending on where the client resides, hopefully get a favorable decision. This is all just so unnecessary.
We can debate, and meaningfully debate at that, all day long as to whether Democrats or Republicans have better policies as it relates to immigration and even immigration reform. What we’re talking about here, though, is about being practical and being fair. IJ’s have the ability to meaningfully assess whether a respondent before them has a prima facie right to obtain relief before USCIS so he or she can lawfully remain here. Assuming this is true, what difference will it make then to the Court if a respondent’s case is put on a separate status docket and the Court checks in with that respondent “periodically” to see how their case with, e.g., USCIS is going? In my view, it makes (or should make) no difference.
Practicing immigration law is very rewarding. And of course it’s challenging too. All fields of law have their challenges. That’s alright. What’s not alright, however, is creating obstacles to lawyers and litigants that are truly unnecessary (and unfair). Let’s solve the underlying problem through meaningful immigration reform. Let’s not punish individuals who would have (more) rights in the United States “but for” delays at USCIS that are not of their own creation. Seems fair to me.
Have you seen the news recently? The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced new efforts that will result in the forcible separation of families seeking protection in the United States under established U.S. law. Not only that, the Trump Administration announced that it will increase criminal prosecutions of parents attempting to enter the United States illegally, even those seeking political asylum in the United States, in its effort to tighten immigration enforcement.
In a recent speech, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that going forward, the United States would have a zero tolerance policy, suggesting that anyone crossing the border unlawfully into the United States will now be prosecuted. Even those seeking asylum in the United States. I quote:
“If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally.”
It is a bit ironic that on the very day First Lady Melania Trump made a public statement about cherishing and protecting children, the Attorney General was talking about U.S. policy of separating parents from children for immigrant families seeking asylum status in the United States. That’s right, when Melania Trump said that “children deserve every opportunity to enjoy their innocence”, Attorney General Sessions declared that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) will arrest parents, and thereafter separate them from their children.
With then candidate Trump putting immigration front and center in the 2016 election, and now President Trump doing the same ahead of this year’s midterm elections, I suppose no one should be surprised by any of this.
Does that mean if a family presents themselves at a proper border crossing point and applies for political asylum, seeking protection from unfettered criminal violence in their home country, that they won’t be prosecuted or separated?
Individuals who arrive at the our border, without proper documentation, are often subject to fast-track deportation processes called “expedited removal” or, in some cases, “reinstatement of removal” (if they’ve been removed from the United States previously). In each instance, however, the law requires that these individuals receive a preliminary screening interview with a U.S. asylum officer if they express a fear of persecution if they were returned to their country of origin.
Over the past several years, however, federal law enforcement officials have been very vigorous in prosecuting migrants for entering the United States without permission or for reentering the country without permission after a prior deportation or removal order. Indeed, tens of thousands of individuals are subjected to criminal prosecution for these crimes every year. I understand this. We are a nation of laws.
However, the United States is a signatory to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which is supposed to prevent nations from penalizing individuals requesting protection from persecution or torture in their country of origin. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General noted that prosecuting those “who express fear of persecution or return to their home countries” may be inconsistent with and may violate U.S. treaty obligations.
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, 2017, including more than 100 children under the age of 4. The Office of Refugee Resettlement takes custody of children who have been removed from migrant parents. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in February to challenge the practice of family separation.
We need to find the proper balance of appropriately and humanely enforcing our immigration laws, protecting individuals from being returned to their home country, and preventing families from being forcibly separated while the U.S. immigration process plays itself out. Right now, all this new policy is doing is making criminals of people who are simply seeking refuge from violence in their home country, and separating already stressed families, including very young and vulnerable children. This is unacceptable.
A recent article in the WALL STREET JOURNAL referred to a March 30, 2018 email from James McHenry, the head of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”), to immigration judges across the country, indicating that new metrics will require immigration judges to complete three (3) cases per workday. As a lawyer, I am used to dealing with many cases every day, so at first blush, three did not seem like a lot. But in context of the immigration judicial process, it most certainly is. And the stakes are high.
According to A. Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges union, “[t]hey are allocating, on average for a case, no more than two and a half hours,” further noting that political asylum cases often include hundreds of pages of supporting documents and evidence, not to mention countless hours of testimony and deliberation. In addition, because different judges handle different types of cases, including complex ones that take more time, it does not make a whole lot of sense to apply the same standard uniformly to all judges. Again, Judge Tabaddor: “We deal with people who are unaccompanied children, with people who have mental competency issues, with people who have serious criminal convictions, and with people who have fear of returning to their home countries in case of threat of death.”
According to Syracuse University, the immigration court backlog is currently more than 680,000 cases. EOIR’s new requirements will force some judges to adjudicate cases more quickly than they have been. The average cases completed per year by immigration judges, according to the EOIR, is less than 680. The new metric will require judges to complete 700 cases per year.
Judge Tabaddor says that “[y]ou are going to, at minimum, impact the perception of the integrity of the court.” It’s a lot worse than that.
Immigration judges are appointed by the Attorney General and are employees of the Department of Justice. Unlike their regular federal judge counterparts, who have life-tenure, immigration judges can be fired by the Attorney General. Courts certainly have established “aspirational” case completion goals in order to move overall caseloads along, but numeric quotas have never been explicitly tied to judges individual performance evaluations. This will no doubt jeopardize an immigration judge’s ability to remain independent and impartial.
“The very concept [of a quota system] is in conflict with independent decision-making authority of judges,” says Judge Tabaddor, “because it pits the judges’ personal livelihood to mere completion of cases faster through the system, rather than making decisions that are based on the fact and the law of the case as they took the oath to do.”
One could also argue that mandatory quotas will lower the quality of adjudications and perhaps even compromise due process. The Immigration and Nationality Act requires that a respondent in removal proceedings be given a “reasonable opportunity” to examine and present evidence. Most respondents in removal proceedings do not speak English as their primary language. A strict time frame for judges to complete their cases would no doubt interfere with that judge’s ability to assure that this important federal right to examine and present evidence is respected.
Related to this, Judges may now feel more pressure to deny requests for continuances. An unrepresented person making his or her first appearance before an immigration judge may need more time to find an attorney. An individual seeking political asylum may need more time to gather and develop evidence that is often very difficult to obtain from his or her home country. Reasonable continuances are often necessary to allow individuals time to develop their case.
Here’s a novel idea. What about increasing the budgets for the immigration courts? Remember the backlog number above? 680,000 cases! Immigration courts are way under-funded relative to the budgets of immigration enforcement agencies. In the government’s 2017 fiscal year, the combined budgets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) and Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) exceeded $20 billion. By comparison, EOIR’s was about $420 million.
Let’s face it. By imposing numeric quotas on immigration judges, we’re doing little more than enabling the Trump Administration’s broader agenda of streamlining removal procedures in to so it can deport massive numbers of people at the expense of due process. The immigration court system can only function if due process is respected. This can only be accomplished if the judges have enough time to carefully review each case, conduct a thorough and fair hearing, deliberate the case, and then when all this is done, issue a well-reasoned decision that is consistent with the facts and relevant law.
Just recently Time Magazine named German Chancellor Angela Merkel as its “Person of the Year”. Among other things, Time noted her role in Europe’s migration crises. Time wrote that Chancellor Merkel had provided “steadfast moral leadership in a world where it is in short supply.”
Do you know who came in third place? Donald Trump (just behind Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State militant group, commonly known as ISIS).
So let’s see if I have this straight. Time said that Chancellor Merkel was deserving of the award because, among other reasons, by the end of 2015, “she had steered the [European Union] through not one but two existential crises” with the second being a “thunderclap. In late summer, Merkel’s government threw open Germany’s doors to a pressing throng of refugees and migrants; a total of 1 million asylum seekers are expected in the country by the end of December.”
Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, was quoted in Time that “[Chancellor Merkel] has demonstrated particularly bold moral and practical leadership on the refugee crisis, welcoming vulnerable migrants despite the political costs[.]” I could not agree more.
And what of Candidate Trump? Well, Candidate Trump has engaged in fear mongering, including proposing a plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States; that’s right, Candidate Trump says we need a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Constitutional? I doubt it.
Nevertheless, the tragic events in Paris and, more recently, in San Bernardino, California, have ramped up Congressional efforts to, among other things, halt the U.S. refugee resettlement program (which yes, includes Muslims trying to come to the United States because they’re fleeing persecution in their own countries).
Quite frankly, there is no need for Congress to end the refugee program for Syrians and Iraqis or to even impose additional security measures. The U.S. refugee program already subjects every individual who will enters the U.S. pursuant to it to extremely rigorous checks performed by multiple federal agencies. Indeed, after decades of operation, not a single refugee has committed a reported act of terrorism in the U.S.
Fortunately, most legal scholars believe that Candidate Trump’s plan would be unconstitutional. In fact, his plan was even rejected by politicians from both sides of the political aisle, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Paul Ryan. In a press conference, Speaker Ryan denounced Candidate Trump’s comments by stating that they don’t reflect who we are as a nation (or even the Republican Party for that matter).
The campaign trail rhetoric continues to be atrocious (as is some, but thankfully not all, of the rhetoric in Washington, D.C.). I can only hope that reasoned and informed opinions prevail.