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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Immigration Judges Revolt Against Trump Administration

    In a little noted, but quite extraordinary move, the National Association of Immigration Judges ("NAIJ") has asked Congress to protect its members (Immigration Judges) from the Trump Administration (their employer). The reason? The Trump Administration is seeking to "evaluate judges’ performance based on numerical measures or production quotas." According to NAIJ, "If EOIR is successful in tying case completion quotas to judge performance evaluations, it could be the death knell for judicial independence in the Immigration Courts." "Judges can face potential termination for good faith legal decisions of which their supervisors do not approve."


    EOIR is developing a more efficient way to adjudicate cases (and it comes with a free drink!).


    Let's start with a bit of background. NAIJ is a voluntary organization of United States Immigration Judges. It also is the recognized representative of Immigration Judges for collective bargaining purposes(in other words, the IJs' union): "Our mission is to promote the independence of Immigration Judges and enhance the professionalism, dignity, and efficiency of the Immigration Courts, which are the trial-level tribunals where removal proceedings initiated by the Department of Homeland Security are conducted."

    According to NAIJ, the most important regulation governing IJ decision-making is 8 C.F.R. § 1003.10(b). This regulation requires that immigration judges exercise judicial independence. Specifically, “in deciding the individual cases before them, and subject to the applicable governing standards, immigration judges shall exercise their independent judgment and discretion and may take any action consistent with their authorities under the Act and regulations that is appropriate and necessary for the disposition of such cases.” 8 C.F.R. §1 003.10(b).

    Up until now, IJs were exempted from quantitative performance evaluations. According to NAIJ, "The basis for this exemption was rooted in the notion that ratings created an inherent risk of actual or perceived influence by supervisors on the work of judges, with the potential of improperly affecting the outcome of cases."

    The Trump Administration is now moving to change the way it evaluates IJs. The main reason for the change is the Administration's goal of reducing the very-large backlog of cases in Immigration Court (currently, there are about 640,000 pending cases). The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR - the office that administers the nation's Immigration Courts) recently announced a plan to "transform[] its institutional culture to emphasize the importance of completing cases." In other words, EOIR will judge its judges based--at least in part--on the number of cases completed.

    NAIJ has called this development "alarming" and a threat to judicial independence. Why? Because when judges are forced to complete a certain number of cases, they may be unable to devote the necessary time to each case. As a result, the ability to make proper, well-thought-out decisions will suffer.

    This is already a problem in Immigration Court. One IJ famously quipped that his job involved adjudicating death penalty cases in a traffic court setting. And so pushing judges to do more cases in less time will potentially impact the alien's due process rights, and the integrity of our Immigration Courts.

    NAIJ has long believed that the system needs a "structural overhaul" and has advocated for converting the Immigration Courts into Article I courts. Article I refers to the first article in the U.S. Constitution, the section on legislative (i.e., Congressional) powers. The idea is that Congress would establish an independent immigration court, much like it created a tax court and a court of veterans appeal. Such a court would be independent of the Executive Branch--the branch of government tasked with enforcing immigration law (currently, IJs are employees of the Department of Justice, a part of the Executive Branch).


    NAIJ recognizes that creating Article I immigration courts "may not be feasible right now," but it nevertheless urges Congress to protect the nation's IJs from the new Trump Administration policy:

    Congress can... easily and swiftly resolve this problem through a simple amendment to the civil service statute on performance reviews. Recognizing that performance evaluations are antithetical to judicial independence, Congress exempted Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) from performance appraisals and ratings by including them in the list of occupations exempt from performance reviews in 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2)(D). This provision lists ALJs as one of eight categories (A through H) of employees who are excluded from the requirement of performance appraisals and ratings. To provide that same exemption to Immigration Judges, all that would be needed is an amendment to 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2), which would add a new paragraph (I) listing Immigration Judges in that list of exempt employees.

    The fact that IJs themselves are concerned about the Administration's move is worrying. The Immigration Judges I know are conscientious and take their jobs very seriously (in contrast to the Trump Administration, which seems utterly lacking in seriousness). If EOIR is making it more difficult for IJs to do their duty, as they understand it, then something is clearly wrong.

    Perhaps the IJs' concerns are overblown. Maybe EOIR will implement the new case completion standards in a way that does not damage judicial independence or due process. But given the Administration's track record in general, and the inexperienced acting director appointed to head EOIR, it's difficult to have much confidence in the new policy. Since Congress is unlikely to act on NAIJ's request for protection, I suppose we will see soon enough how these changes affect the Immigration Courts.

    Finally, in my opinion, EOIR has largely misdiagnosed the problem. While some delay may be caused by IJs kicking the can down the road, or by aliens "playing" the system, most delay is systematic--it is caused by reshuffling Administration priorities, which affect how DHS and DOJ schedule cases. I doubt that imposing numerical quotas on IJs will do much to improve the situation. Other solutions--facilitating pre-trial conferences, reforming the Master Calendar system, better use of technology, imposition of costs, premium processing for certain applicants--might be more effective. Everyone agrees that reducing the backlog is a worthy goal, but case completion requirements are probably not the best way to achieve that end.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
    Tags: eoir, trump Add / Edit Tags
  2. On the Benefits of Having a Lawyer

    A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal ("Immigrants Need Better Protection--From Their Lawyers" by Professor Benjamin Edwards) laments the poor quality of immigration attorneys, and postulates that as a group, “the private immigration bar now contains the worst lawyers in all of law.”


    It's easy to know which barber to choose (hint: Barber A), but finding a good immigration lawyer can be more challenging.

    The author’s primary solution to the problem of “incompetent” and “predatory” lawyers is to track the success rate of each attorney and then make that information public. In this way, potential customers (i.e., people being deported) can make more informed decisions about their choice of counsel.

    Among practicing lawyers, Prof. Edwards's solution was largely panned as unworkable, ivory-tower thinking. While I generally agree that there is a problem (which I’ve written about in a charmingly-titled piece called, Do Immigration Lawyers Suck?), I also agree with my colleagues that Prof. Edwards’s solution is unworkable (if you’re interested in why it is unworkable, here are some thoughts from Jennifer Minear at AILA).

    While some immigration lawyers are less-than qualified for their jobs, it is none-the-less true that having a lawyer for an asylum case significantly increases the likelihood of a good outcome.

    A new report from TRAC Immigration provides some specific data about asylum cases and representation. The report breaks down the statistics by country, which is quite helpful, as asylum seekers can look for their country, get a sense for how many of their landsmen are represented, and see the success rate for represented and unrepresented applicants. The report covers Immigration Court cases only (from FY 2012 to FY 2017), and does not include cases at the Asylum Office.

    The bottom line is this: For almost all countries, asylum applicants with lawyers are two to four times more likely to win their cases in court, as compared to unrepresented applicants from the same country. There are, of course, some caveats.

    One is that, people with good cases are more likely to have attorneys. This is because people with money, educated people, and people who speak English all have an advantage navigating the U.S. immigration system. Such people are more likely to find a lawyer, and they are also more able to present their cases. People who are detained, who are not educated, and who do not speak English will have a harder time presenting their cases, and will also be less able to obtain representation. In that sense, I think the statistics exaggerate the benefits of having an attorney.

    But even considering these socio-economic factors, the difference between represented and unrepresented applicants is pretty significant, and in the face of these statistics, it’s hard to argue that lawyers don’t help, Prof. Edwards not-with-standing.

    What’s also interesting here is that lawyers provide a multiplier effect on the likelihood of winning. So, for example, an unrepresented case from China has about a 21% chance of success, while a represented case has about an 82% chance of success—a difference of almost four times. And, of course, 82% is a lot better than 21%. A case from El Salvador, on the other hand, has only about a 4% chance of winning without a lawyer, but has almost a 17% chance for success with a lawyer—again, a difference of four times, but in absolute terms, the difference of 4% versus 17% is a lot less significant than 21% versus 82%. Put another way, when the average Chinese applicant hires an attorney for her asylum case, she appears to be getting a lot more for her money than the average Salvadoran applicant.

    Why should this be? Why should a lawyer multiply the chances of winning rather than increase the likelihood of victory arithmetically by, say, 10 percentage points across the board (so that the Chinese applicant would go from a 21% chance of success to 31%, and the grant rate for Salvadorans would increase from 4% to 14%)?

    The short answer is that I don’t know. Maybe one explanation is that asylum seekers from certain countries present claims that more easily fit within the legal parameters of our asylum system. So cases from China—which often involve political or religious persecution—are more amenable to a grant than cases from El Salvador, which often involve a fear of harm from criminals. Our asylum law quite clearly protects people fleeing religious or political persecution, but it offers little for people fleeing crime. Under this theory, lawyers representing Chinese applicants can help ensure that their cases are presented in a manner that meets the requirements for asylum. It is more difficult to do this for Salvadorans. Or put in more classic terms, even a great lawyer can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

    Another interesting tidbit from the TRAC numbers is the level of representation in each community. Almost 96% of Chinese applicants had attorneys. Contrast that with Salvadorans, who were represented in only about 73% of cases. Looking at the top 10 source countries for asylum seekers, Haiti had the lowest rate of representation—only about 56% of Haitian asylum seekers had lawyers.

    Finally, while it may be somewhat early to discuss trends since President Trump took the helm, the numbers for FY 2017 show an increase in the absolute number of asylum cases decided by Immigration Courts (from 22,312 in FY 2016 to 30,179 in FY 2017) and in the percentage of asylum cases denied (from 56.5% denied in FY 2016 to 61.8% denied in FY 2017). While these numbers are not encouraging, the upward trend in asylum denial rates actually began in FY 2012, under President Obama (denial rates have steadily risen from 44.5% in FY 2012 to 61.8% today).

    So what are asylum seekers to make of all this? It seems to me that the most important take-away is that a lawyer in court can significantly increase the likelihood of success, as long as that lawyer is competent and makes an effort to help you with your case. I’ve written previously about the cost of a lawyer, and what the lawyer should do for you. I’ve also written about how to find a free lawyer if you cannot afford to hire one. If you are careful, if you ask questions, and if you make an effort to find an effective attorney, you can greatly increase the possibility of winning your asylum case in court.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
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