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August 10, 2006

Immigration Court Reforms Welcomed, But Some Problems Overlooked

The Justice Department committed yesterday to a series of significant reforms to the U.S. immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals. While the reforms are a major step forward toward a more fair immigration and asylum process, they do not adequately address a number of problems in the system.

“Many of these reforms are critical and long overdue,” said Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First’s refugee protection program. “At the same time though, we are disappointed that the Justice Department decided not to reverse some of the most troubling changes made, at the prompting of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, at the Board of Immigration Appeals.”

These changes, referred to as “streamlining,” had prevented many asylum seekers from having asylum denials reviewed by three-member panels of the Board. Human Rights First had urged the Justice Department to reinstate this more thorough and appropriate form of review. 

The new reforms are the result of a comprehensive review launched by the Justice Department in January 2006 following mounting criticism of the immigration courts and the Board by federal court judges and others. The measures include: plans to request additional funding for the immigration court system; to hire additional immigration judges and law clerks; to strengthen training, oversight and complaint procedures; and enhance pro bono programs. The Justice Department also announced that it will increase the size of the Board – which Ashcroft had reduced - adding four additional members and permitting the use of temporary members.

Many of the new measures call for further assessment, plans and additional funding. “Follow-through is essential,” Acer noted, “We will not know how effective or flawed these reforms will be until this follow-through is conducted.”

Human Rights First, with input from experts and pro bono attorneys, submitted recommendations to the Justice Department to inform its review of the immigration court system, available here.