8-24-2011By Lori Adams
Human Rights First
Last week, President Obama announced that his administration will focus its limited resources on more “rational enforcement” of U.S. immigration laws to prioritize the removal of non-citizens who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security. As part of this effort, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security will review thousands of cases that are currently in our immigration court system in order to determine on a case-by-case basis which cases can be administratively closed because the individual poses no threat.
This initiative should help to clear the tremendous backlog in the immigration courts. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), in December 2010 there were 267,752 cases pending in immigration court. As of February 2011, the average time for a case pending was 467 days. If done right, the administration’s efforts should allow immigration judges to focus their time on deciding the cases of those who may be eligible for relief and on ordering the deportation of individuals who actually might pose a risk to public safety or national security – rather than spending limited resources hearing the cases of non-criminals, military veterans, the elderly, and other “low-priority” populations, including those who came to the United States as small children and know no other home.
If the backlog in the immigration court system can be reduced, we hope to see the pace of hearings improve for asylum seekers and others who need to have their cases for relief adjudicated by an immigration judge.
Through our pro bono asylum representation program in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere, Human Rights First sees firsthand the hardship that court backlogs and extended processing times create for our asylum clients – individuals who have fled persecution on the basis of political opinion, religion, and other qualities that are fundamental to their identity. For example, right now judges in the New York Immigration Court are regularly scheduling asylum merits hearings on the non-detained docket for dates as late as 2014 because they have no space on their dockets to hear cases earlier. When our asylum clients must wait years for their claims to be heard, they remain separated from their spouses and children, who may be in grave danger in their home countries. They also find themselves in an agonizing state of legal limbo, their greatest fear often being that after such a long and difficult struggle, the United States will return them to a place where they face torture, arbitrary detention, or even death.
Human Rights First welcomes last week’s announcement from the administration. We encourage policymakers to evaluate other issues impacting the inefficiencies of the immigration court system and impeding the ability of immigration judges to adjudicate cases in an efficient and effective manner. They could take additional concrete steps to address these issues by appropriating adequate funds to the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) so that staffing levels of judges and law clerks are commensurate with caseloads, and expanding initiatives such as the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) that have demonstrated success in improving the pace of immigration court proceedings for detained immigrants.
Read Human Rights First’s written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on improving the efficiency of the immigration courts (May 18, 2011).