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Immigration Court Problems Addressed in Senate Judiciary Hearing

The American Immigration Council’s Legal Action Center commended Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for conducting a hearing last Wednesday to address the challenges U.S. immigration courts face in providing efficient and fair justice for immigrants.
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Leahy is searching for ways to improve a system that needs attention.  The system currently suffers from:

  • backlogs that can delay hearings before an immigration judge for a year or more, which affects both judges and individuals in the system
  • increases in immigration enforcement policies that further strain resources
  • a justice system that offers immigrants fewer legal protections than expected in the U.S.

The National Association of Immigration Judges submitted a statement to Congress criticizing the fact that they have to operate “in a resource-starved environment.” Recent estimates indicate that the U.S. has roughly 270,000 cases being handled by 262 immigration law judges.  Backlogs average about 1,500 cases per judge with some having as many as 2,400 cases. In addition, immigration courts operate under the Justice Department, which is under a hiring freeze, so if overworked judges leave, they cannot be replaced.
The system gets more taxed as the government increases spending on enforcement. Programs, such asSecure Communities, result in more court cases. These cases are becoming increasingly more complex as individuals choose to seek asylum or look for other ways to fight deportation. Also, in the past, when people would simply disappear before their hearing date, they are now showing up. In court, immigration judges have no time for recess to consider cases before rendering decisions. This leads to more appeals. Add the Department of Homeland Security’s increasing reliance upon state and local law enforcement agencies, and the problems get further compounded.
Flaws in the system also put immigrants at a disadvantage. Once involved in deportation proceedings, individuals are unable to receive legal counsel if they cannot afford it. They can also be deported on the basis of hearsay or other such evidence, which would be thrown out of a federal court. Furthermore, there is no consideration for lack of mental competency, so if an individual is unable to understand proceedings or aspects of their case, they receive no help.
What Sen. Leahy, judges, attorneys, immigrant-rights advocates and other groups all understand is that theU.S. immigration court system needs checks and balances to address problems and make it fair.  Melissa Crow, Director of the Legal Action Center at the American Immigration Council commented that, “While the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform should remain Congress’s ultimate goal, improving the immigration courts would help treat a chronic, if underappreciated, symptom of our broken immigration system.”
As long as the federal government continues to increase enforcement efforts and ignore the need for court reform, U.S. immigration courts will continue to be worked beyond capacity. Sen. Leahy, though, has taken an important step toward improving efficiency and addressing problems with the Immigration Court System by convening this hearing.