Immigration Judge Apocalypse 2014

by Jason Dzubow on January 22, 2014

in Immigration Court

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Nearly half of the nation’s Immigration Judges are eligible to retire this year.

Last week, I attended the retirement luncheon for one of them: Judge Wayne Iskra. For the past 10 years, I practiced before Judge Iskra at the Arlington, Virginia Immigration Court. I also clerked for him back in 1998-99. He is a wonderful person who was a great inspiration to me and many others. He was also a great judge–he was devoted to ensuring that justice was done, and he had little patience for attorneys (private attorneys or DHS attorneys) who failed to fulfill their duties.

Immigration Judges today...

Immigration Judges today…

The MC at the lunch, Judge Thomas Snow, noted that before his retirement, the Chief Judge repeatedly described Judge Iskra as “irreplaceable.” Finally, Judge Snow realized that when the Chief said that Judge Iskra was irreplaceable, it meant that he would not be replaced.

So the Arlington Immigration Court, which is already very busy and where cases are currently being scheduled into late 2016, will now go from five judges to four. The same thing happened in Baltimore last summer, when another excellent and long-serving IJ, Judge John Gossart, retired.

Although I have not heard news of any mass retirement, the Associated Press reports that almost 50% of the nation’s Immigration Judges are eligible for retirement this year. While I suppose this is good news for people selling condos in Ft. Lauderdale, it is bad news for the Immigration Court system.

...and in 2015.

…and in 2015.

And yes, as the immigration restrictionists love to remind us, certain immigrants prefer delay, so they can buy more time in the United States. But at least in my experience, this is a minority. Granted, my cases may not be typical. Most of my clients have good cases, and so the sooner they get to the merits hearing, the better. Also, many of my asylum clients have family members who they hope to bring to the U.S. if their cases are granted. The longer the delay, the longer they are separated from (and worried about) their family members. So for me, the increased delays are definitely a bad thing.

Also, I am quite certain that the remaining IJs won’t be happy about their depleted ranks. Immigration Judges are already overworked and overburdened. The title of a 2010 Mother Jones article sums it up well–Judges on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. From the article:

Caught in the middle [of the Obama Administration's efforts to increase deportations] are the judges, for whom mind-numbing bureaucracy collides with thorny moral issues. Most of the time, they work without even basic staff like bailiffs and stenographers. Increased immigration enforcement means that their workload is the highest it has ever been—three to four times larger than caseloads in other federal courts.

And of course, mistakes can have dire consequences. As one IJ noted, “It makes me feel ill to grant asylum to someone who I believe is probably lying, but it also makes me sick to think that I have denied protection to someone who really needs it.”

The obvious solution is to hire more (lots more) judges and court staff. But given EOIR’s budget (or lack thereof), this seems unlikely. So here are a few other thoughts:

– Create an easy, secure on-line system to allow EOIR-registered attorneys to do their Master Calendar Hearings by email. Attorneys could enter their appearances, admit or deny allegations, plead to charges, and set dates for Merits Hearings. For complicated cases (and pro se cases), IJs would still require Master Calendar Hearings, but an on-line system would be a great time saver for everyone.

– Hire more DHS attorneys and staff, and encourage them to communicate with attorneys for immigrants. Many issues can be resolved before trial, which saves time. However, because DHS is also short staffed, they do not have the resources to review cases prior to trial and speak with opposing counsel. If they did, it would shorten hearings and make life easier for the IJs.

– Stop deporting so many people. It seems that President Obama is intent on setting deportation records year after year. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are being placed into removal proceedings. If ICE were more selective about who it tried to deport, DHS attorneys and IJs could focus more on those cases. We don’t ticket everyone who drives over the speed limit. We don’t prosecute everyone who is caught with a joint. We don’t arrest everyone who illegally downloads music. Why? Because we don’t have the resources to do those things, and to do so would require intolerable levels of intrusion into our lives. In the same way, it seems to me, we could relax a bit concerning deportations. Resources–including judges’ time–is limited. We should use that limited resource more efficiently.

– Don’t allow any more IJs to retire. OK, maybe it is not technically legal to force IJs to keep working, but an immigration lawyer can dare to dream. Besides, I want Judges Iskra and Gossart back.

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