I’ve written quite a bit in these pages about the backlog at the Asylum Offices, but today I want to focus on another backlog–in the Immigration Courts–and what can be done to improve the situation. The Court backlog has been a bit off my radar; I suppose because the Immigration Courts have always been slow, and so delay in that realm was the norm. But the fact is, the delays in Court have gotten worse. My furthest case is currently set for March 2019. I expect to travel to the Court in my hovercraft.
The basic problem for the Courts, and across the government, is money. Resources are limited and now, with a Congressional leadership hostile to immigration, it seems less likely that the budget for EOIR–the Executive Office for Immigration Review; the agency that oversees the Courts–will be expanded (though a new, anti-immigration bill pending in the House would create 50 new Immigration Judge positions). However, there are some reforms that could be implemented that would not require additional money from the government.
Below are a few suggestions. Some might require Congressional action; others would not. Given the current situation, something needs to be done. Perhaps some of these ideas would help alleviate the Court backlog:
– Impose Costs: Criminal and civil courts routinely impose costs and fines on people in the system, so why shouldn’t Immigration Courts do the same? There generally is only one reason that a person would have a case before an Immigration Judge–he violated the immigration law. Maybe the violation wasn’t his fault (think referred asylum seekers), and so a fine or payment of costs is not warranted, but the IJ can make this determination. The Immigration Court system is expensive, and it seems fair that people who are in the system because they violated the law should help pay for it. And of course, this money could be used to help improve the system.
– Premium Processing: Certain application before USCIS allow for premium processing. The applicant pays additional money and receives a faster decision (though not necessarily a better decision). Maybe the Immigration Courts could create some type of premium processing so that an alien could pay additional money to speed up her case. I have written about this idea in the context of the Asylum Office. The people who pay the premium processing fee would benefit the most from this plan, but the infusion of money into the system should benefit everyone.
With regard to the imposition of costs and premium processing, it seems a reasonable question to ask: Is this fair to people who cannot afford to pay? I suppose it is not, but America is not really a fair place. We are a liaise faire capitalist democracy. Every man for himself, and all that. We routinely fine the poor for being poor, and while I don’t like imposing costs in the immigration context, it is a way to improve the system for everyone–even those who cannot pay.
One last point here. Maybe one way to ease the burden would be to spread out the cost. If an alien is fined or forced to pay costs (to pay for the court, DHS, his own detention, etc.), those costs could be paid over time. Instead of receiving a green card, for example, the alien could receive a conditional green card that must be renewed every two years. As long as he continues to pay his debt, the card will be renewed.
– Empower DHS: DHS attorneys are overworked and lack the resources necessary to properly do their jobs. Adding additional staff to the various Trial Attorneys offices would allow DHS to review cases in advance. This would allow attorneys like me to file applications for relief in advance. DHS could then review the applications and–where appropriate–agree to the relief. Of course, DHS would not agree to relief in all cases, but in many cases, relief is not contested. If we could agree on relief in advance, we could remove the case from the Court’s docket, thus freeing space for other cases. Indeed, perhaps this could be combined with premium processing, so that the alien can pay a fee to DHS to review her case (and DHS could use this money to hire more staff). Maybe DHS could even meet with the alien to further explore whether relief is appropriate. If, after examining the case, DHS determines that relief is appropriate, it could inform the Court, which would then grant the relief without a hearing.
There has been some (tepid) movement in this direction, with prosecutorial discretion, but that does not go far enough. Aliens who are eligible for substantive relief do not want prosecutorial discretion; they want their cases granted. If DHS had the resources to review and decide cases in advance, it would help alleviate the backlog before the Immigration Courts.
– Pre-Master Calendar Hearings: Let’s face it, Master Calendar Hearings (“MCH”) are a huge waste of time. Why not require any alien who enters the system to attend a pre-MCH with a member of the Court staff (not an IJ). The pre-MCHs could be arranged by language group, so that everyone attending speaks the same language and the Court staff member could be fluent in that language (or have an appropriate interpreter). At the pre-MCH, the aliens would watch a video–in their own language–explaining the system and their rights (basically what the IJ repeats to pro se aliens 31 times each MCH). The staff member could answer basic questions and encourage the pro se aliens to find lawyers (basically what the IJ does 31 times each MCH). Aliens who will not use a lawyer can be scheduled for an in-person MCH, like what we have now. Aliens who say they will hire a lawyer will be given a deadline for the lawyer to enter her appearance (see the next suggestion for more on lawyers and MCHs). If the deadline passes, the alien will need to attend an in-person MCH.
– e-Master Calendar Hearings: EOIR now requires all attorneys to register and obtain an EOIR ID Number. As far as I can tell, EOIR does nothing with these ID numbers. However, it (supposedly) is a first step towards electronic filing. Federal courts across the United States require electronic filing, and I see no reason that the Immigration Courts should not do the same. Once an attorney enters her appearance, she should be able to go on-line and plead to the allegations and charges in the Notice to Appear (the charging document in Immigration Court). She should also indicate the relief sought. If there is some reason that the lawyer needs to see the IJ, she can request to appear at a regular MCH. But for the large majority of cases, all the pleadings and requests for relief could be done on-line. How, you ask, would this be an improvement over the current system, where lawyers can file written pleadings? At least in my experience, written pleadings are a huge pain in the tuchus. IJs often ignore them until the last minute, and we have to repeatedly call the Court to see whether the IJ will rule on them. So they really are not worth the trouble. If there was an easy electronic system that actually worked, and we could avoid MCHs, attorneys would be much inclined to use that system. It would save Court and DHS time, and it would also save attorney time and perhaps reduce costs for the alien.
OK, I suppose that is more than enough for now. If anyone at EOIR wants to hire me to implement these changes, you know where to reach me…