Solutions to overburdened immigration court system

By Betsy Adeboyejo

American Bar Association News Service

"Our immigration system is in crisis, overburdened and under-resourced," said Karen Grisez, chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration yesterday at a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

"The pace of justice in the immigration courts is too slow," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the committee. Leahy said he called the hearing "not to criticize the immigration courts, but to have a constructive discussion about how they can be improved."

Leahy acknowledged that the issues surrounding immigration courts have not been at the forefront in the immigration debates, but recognized the enormity of the decisions made by immigration judges.

"To an asylum seeker with a valid claim of persecution in her home country, a denial may be tantamount to a death sentence," Leahy said.

"If the courts do not operate fairly and efficiently, long delays are additional burdens."

Grisez said that underfunding the courts endangers due process for those who appear before them.

The number of noncitizens removed from the United States has increased more than 450 percent in the past dozen years--from 69,680 removed in fiscal year 1996 to 393,289 removed in fiscal year 2009. In recent years, immigration detainees have represented the fastest growing segment of the U.S. incarcerated population.

Grisez, Juan Osuna, director of Executive Office for Immigration Review and Julie Myers Wood, the former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, all testified before the committee.

Osuna said that despite the rising caseload his office and the Justice Department have made great strides to seek the resources necessary to hire additional judges, attorneys and staff. President Barack Obama's 2012 budget includes $329.8 million and 1,707 positions for EOIR, an increase of 125 positions--21 immigration judge teams and 10 Board of Immigration Appeals attorney positions.

Grisez urged Congress to fund the 2012 request. "With additional resources and more time allowed to decide each case, immigration judges could be required to provide more formal, reasoned written decisions, particularly in matters, such as asylum claims, where the complexity of the cases requires more thoughtful consideration than can be given during the hearing itself."

Referencing a report the ABA released in 2010 titled "Reforming the Immigration System: Proposals to Promote Independence, Fairness, Efficiency, and Professionalism in the Adjudication of Removal Cases," Grisez noted that though the EOIR had implemented a number of measures to improve the performance of the courts, she highlighted steps to further boost efficiency and improve justice.

These measures include expanding noncitizen access to legal counsel, which would prevent procedural snags and excessive appeals that arise when people represent themselves instead of hiring a lawyer; increasing the use of prosecutorial discretion to reduce unnecessary litigation; allowing asylum officers, rather than courts, to handle immediate claims raised as a defense to expedited removal; and removing the requirement that asylum seekers file their claim within one year of arrival in the United States, which would reduce immigration court caseloads.

Published: Wed, Jun 1, 2011

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