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In 2014, Immigration Judge John F. Gossart, Jr. retired after more than 30 years on the bench. Judge Gossart sat in Baltimore, where he was well-known and well-liked by attorneys on both side of the aisle (I myself had many cases with him), and his absence is still felt in his Court. Aside from his judicial work, Judge Gossart was (and is) an adjunct professor of law and a legal educator in the wider community. The Asylumist caught up with Judge Gossart to ask about his career, some memorable moments, and his opinions on the issues of the day in Immigration Court:
A photo of the official photo of Judge John F. Gossart, Jr. (it's the best we could do!).
Asylumist: How did you get to be an IJ? And why was this position interesting for you?
John F. Gossart: I came to immigration law totally by accident. I wanted to work for the Department of Justice, in public sector law, and I applied for a position there. While I was waiting, I hung my own shingle and practiced law out of my house. When DOJ hired me to work at INS (the Immigration and Naturalization Service), I couldn’t even spell immigration.
My first position there was as a Naturalization Attorney. At the time, applicants for naturalization had to file their petitions in U.S. District Court and present two character witnesses. I would interview the petitioner and the witnesses, and make recommendations about whether the applicant should be permitted to naturalize. I remember one Judge in the Eastern District of Virginia—“Roarin” Orin Lewis—who roared at all the attorneys. In those days, homosexuals were ineligible to naturalize because they were considered “sexual deviants.” I argued for a grant of naturalization for an admitted homosexual because he abstained from sexual activities. The petition was denied by Judge Lewis. In another case involving two Russian “swingers” who had admitted to adultery, Judge Lewis called me into his chambers and read me the riot act. The two were consenting adults, but that didn’t matter to Judge Lewis. He denied the case. At the time, the statute held that persons who committed adultery lacked good moral character.
Then, after a stint as Deputy Commissioner of Naturalization, I became a trial attorney for INS. Eight years later, I had the opportunity to become an Immigration Judge. On October 30, 1982, I was appointed an IJ by Attorney General William French Smith.
As an IJ, I rode circuit and heard cases in many locations: Baltimore, DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Buffalo, Hartford. I loved the job. I enjoyed the challenge and I loved dealing with people. One concern for me was that the private bar might view me as a prosecutor in a judge’s robe. On the other hand, sometimes when I ruled in favor of the respondent, people at INS complained that I had “crossed over.” In fact, I don’t think I played favorites; I just tried to follow the law. My mantra was to be “Fair, Firm, Decisive.”
Asylumist: Are there any cases that you worked on that were particularly memorable?
JFG: I was the IJ in two Nazi war criminal cases. In the case of George Theodorovich, the trial lasted 3½ weeks. He was a Ukrainian police officer who came to the U.S. under an executive order. He denied all charges and claimed that the case against him was a Russian plot. I went to the Russian embassy to review documents, and at trial, several Survivors testified. I entered a 154-page decision (my longest decision) where he was found deportable. He appealed to the BIA. While the case was on appeal, Theodorovich fled the U.S. and went to Paraguay.
Asylumist: As an IJ, what are some common problems that you see when lawyers present cases?
JFG: Dr. Stanley Sinkford, a renowned doctor and professor at Howard Medical School, always told his medical students, “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance,” meaning it is usually a lack of preparation that leads to problems. Some lawyers become too comfortable with their role; they think they can come into court and wing it. Also, proper vetting of clients and—more importantly—witnesses is very important. You cannot meet the witnesses 30 minutes before the hearing and hope everything goes well. I’ve also seen instances where the lawyer did not know the applicable law. This was a particular problem among lawyers who dabble in immigration law. A number of attorneys came before me who thought that the IJ has equity powers. They would ask the court to allow the respondent to stay in the U.S. even where there was no basis to allow him to stay. I fear that such lawyers portray this idea to their client—that the IJ can let you stay, even without a legal basis for relief.
Asylumist: How do you handle cases where you feel that the applicant may have relief, but lawyer errors and/or ineffective assistance of counsel might cause the alien to lose?
JFG: As an IJ, you almost never want to admonish an attorney in public; it is better not to be on the record or in the presence of the client. I have talked to lawyers in chambers, however. I’ve told them, “If you are not familiar with law, you need to become familiar. You have a duty to do your best for your client.” Also, if I am aware that the client appears eligible for another form of relief, I will ask why the attorney is not pursuing it. Attorneys appreciate that a Judge is willing to talk to them in private.
Asylumist: Have you had cases where your gut tells you to rule one way, but the evidence requires that you rule the opposite way? How do you deal with that?
JFG: That is when a judge feels stressed, alone, and badly about the decision he must render. Such decisions are difficult; I suppose that’s why we’re paid the big bucks. But we are judicial officers, and we are required to follow the law. It’s been said by the Supreme Court in Knauf v Shaughnessy, “Judicially we must tolerate what personally we regard as a legislative mistake,” but that is our role as an administrative judge. Your gut may tell you one thing, and you may have sympathy for the person in front of you, but unless that person satisfies the requirements for relief under the law, you cannot get to discretion, and you cannot provide equitable relief. As a Judge, we have to make these kinds of difficult decisions. It is what the law requires. Ultimately, to do justice, you have to read, know, and follow the law.
Asylumist: Over the past couple years, we’ve heard reports about the problem of IJ burnout. Was that a factor for you? How did you protect yourself?
JFG: I was constantly assessing myself, and I remained on-guard for burnout. Whenever necessary, I took a recess from court, or I took a day off. My colleagues were very supportive in this regard; it was helpful to have someone to vent to.
EOIR recently held a conference in Washington, DC—the first live conference in five years. Such events are very important. Judges are able to bond with colleagues. They brought a psychologist to discuss stress.
Asylumist: What do you think EOIR could do differently to better support IJs and make the system more efficient?
JFG: First, we need more judges and this should be done promptly. Preferably, we need candidates with a strong immigration or judicial background. More than 50% of the IJ bench is currently eligible for retirement. So we need regulations for phased retirement and we need to implement the Moving Ahead for Progress Act. This Act would permit IJs to work part time, which is something many IJs are interested in.
Also, we should institute senior status for IJs, so retired IJs could return to the bench to help with the workload. I had proposed this idea several years ago, but personnel felt it would be difficult to do. However, in the last year, EOIR has instituted a recall program, which allows Department of Justice attorneys with sufficient experience to fill temporary judgeships. This program seemingly targets BIA staff attorneys and OIL attorneys; it has not been extended to retired IJs. The Immigration Judges’ Association has been advocating for senior status as well, so retired IJs could return to help address the backlog or cover for a Judge who is absent. Imagine how efficient it would be for someone like me to step in and work for a week or a month while another IJ was on detail or leave. We have a number of IJs who are retired. They have decades of experience and are willing and able to do this.
In addition, we need to provide courts with adequate support staff, and IJs need more administrative time to keep up with motions, read case law, and stay on top of the profession. Judges also need more training—one live conference in five years is not adequate.
I would also like to see implementation of the sanction recommendation that was part of the 1996 statutes. This would give IJs more authority to sanction attorneys for misconduct. They could impose fines. Some lawyers need this type of lesson as a wakeup call. If we are to implement a sanction process, it should apply equally to private attorneys and government counsel. DHS had wanted sanctions only against the private bar, but IJs generally oppose that idea—you have to treat both sides the same.
Asylumist: The definition of a particular social group (“PSG”) has expanded pretty significantly in the last 20 years, mostly through litigation. What is your opinion of this? How do “flood gate” arguments influence IJ thinking regarding PSGs?
JFG: Since the 1980 Act came into effect, it has been litigated and litigated. I think this is healthy. PSG is the most difficult provision of the statute; other protected categories are more self-explanatory.
As to the flood gate argument, as an IJ, we cannot have that as a factor for consideration.
One area I struggled with was PSG cases involving domestic violence. We are still waiting for the government to issue regulations to help guide us. Maybe domestic violence cases would be better addressed through legislation instead of trying to fit them into a PSG, especially when we have such little guidance. Such cases are difficult because they are often very sympathetic. Perhaps it might be better to pass legislation to benefit the abused, rather than to try to figure out how to craft this group of abused individuals into a particular social group.
Asylumist: It seems fairly common for cases referred from the Asylum Office to the Court to be granted by IJs. Do you think this is a systematic problem? Might there be some sort of "fix" that could take place between EOIR and the Asylum Offices?
JFG: To do that, you would have to change the administrative asylum process, and this is a question of resources. When an asylum case is presented to the Asylum Office, there are no witnesses, there are time constraints, the applicants must bring their own interpreters (who may be good—or not). It is an imperfect system.
When the case is referred to Court, many applicants get a lawyer—and that makes a big difference. Attorneys know what evidence to include, they present witnesses, they can get a psychological evaluation. This evidence is often not presented at the Asylum Office. The system we have in Court is a more perfect system. But of course, we like the Asylum Office. Every case they grant is one less case on the Court’s docket.
If you don’t want applicants to get two bites at the apple, you can require asylum applicants who are out of status to go directly to Court.
Asylumist: Do you have any thoughts on how to reduce the backlog?
JFG: DHS could better prioritize which cases are prosecuted. We could have more pre-trial hearings. Why have a lengthy hearing if DHS won’t oppose the case in the end? There could also be more stipulations and more administrative closures. Of course, there is always the issue of Monday-morning quarterbacking. What if a person whose case is admin closed commits a crime? The government does not have the resources to prosecute all cases, but how do we know which cases to pursue? I do think if DHS had more time for stipulations, it would ultimately save time for everyone.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
I've written quite a bit in these pages about the backlog at the Asylum Offices, but today I want to focus on another backlog--in the Immigration Courts--and what can be done to improve the situation. The Court backlog has been a bit off my radar; I suppose because the Immigration Courts have always been slow, and so delay in that realm was the norm. But the fact is, the delays in Court have gotten worse. My furthest case is currently set for March 2019. I expect to travel to the Court in my hovercraft.
Maybe aliens can hire Doc Brown to get them to their Individual Hearings more quickly.
The basic problem for the Courts, and across the government, is money. Resources are limited and now, with a Congressional leadership hostile to immigration, it seems less likely that the budget for EOIR--the Executive Office for Immigration Review; the agency that oversees the Courts--will be expanded (though a new, anti-immigration bill pending in the House would create 50 new Immigration Judge positions). However, there are some reforms that could be implemented that would not require additional money from the government.
Below are a few suggestions. Some might require Congressional action; others would not. Given the current situation, something needs to be done. Perhaps some of these ideas would help alleviate the Court backlog:
- Impose Costs: Criminal and civil courts routinely impose costs and fines on people in the system, so why shouldn't Immigration Courts do the same? There generally is only one reason that a person would have a case before an Immigration Judge--he violated the immigration law. Maybe the violation wasn't his fault (think referred asylum seekers), and so a fine or payment of costs is not warranted, but the IJ can make this determination. The Immigration Court system is expensive, and it seems fair that people who are in the system because they violated the law should help pay for it. And of course, this money could be used to help improve the system.
- Premium Processing: Certain application before USCIS allow for premium processing. The applicant pays additional money and receives a faster decision (though not necessarily a better decision). Maybe the Immigration Courts could create some type of premium processing so that an alien could pay additional money to speed up her case. I have written about this idea in the context of the Asylum Office. The people who pay the premium processing fee would benefit the most from this plan, but the infusion of money into the system should benefit everyone.
With regard to the imposition of costs and premium processing, it seems a reasonable question to ask: Is this fair to people who cannot afford to pay? I suppose it is not, but America is not really a fair place. We are a liaise faire capitalist democracy. Every man for himself, and all that. We routinely fine the poor for being poor, and while I don't like imposing costs in the immigration context, it is a way to improve the system for everyone--even those who cannot pay.
One last point here. Maybe one way to ease the burden would be to spread out the cost. If an alien is fined or forced to pay costs (to pay for the court, DHS, his own detention, etc.), those costs could be paid over time. Instead of receiving a green card, for example, the alien could receive a conditional green card that must be renewed every two years. As long as he continues to pay his debt, the card will be renewed.
- Empower DHS: DHS attorneys are overworked and lack the resources necessary to properly do their jobs. Adding additional staff to the various Trial Attorneys offices would allow DHS to review cases in advance. This would allow attorneys like me to file applications for relief in advance. DHS could then review the applications and--where appropriate--agree to the relief. Of course, DHS would not agree to relief in all cases, but in many cases, relief is not contested. If we could agree on relief in advance, we could remove the case from the Court's docket, thus freeing space for other cases. Indeed, perhaps this could be combined with premium processing, so that the alien can pay a fee to DHS to review her case (and DHS could use this money to hire more staff). Maybe DHS could even meet with the alien to further explore whether relief is appropriate. If, after examining the case, DHS determines that relief is appropriate, it could inform the Court, which would then grant the relief without a hearing.
There has been some (tepid) movement in this direction, with prosecutorial discretion, but that does not go far enough. Aliens who are eligible for substantive relief do not want prosecutorial discretion; they want their cases granted. If DHS had the resources to review and decide cases in advance, it would help alleviate the backlog before the Immigration Courts.
- Pre-Master Calendar Hearings: Let's face it, Master Calendar Hearings ("MCH") are a huge waste of time. Why not require any alien who enters the system to attend a pre-MCH with a member of the Court staff (not an IJ). The pre-MCHs could be arranged by language group, so that everyone attending speaks the same language and the Court staff member could be fluent in that language (or have an appropriate interpreter). At the pre-MCH, the aliens would watch a video--in their own language--explaining the system and their rights (basically what the IJ repeats to pro se aliens 31 times each MCH). The staff member could answer basic questions and encourage the pro se aliens to find lawyers (basically what the IJ does 31 times each MCH). Aliens who will not use a lawyer can be scheduled for an in-person MCH, like what we have now. Aliens who say they will hire a lawyer will be given a deadline for the lawyer to enter her appearance (see the next suggestion for more on lawyers and MCHs). If the deadline passes, the alien will need to attend an in-person MCH.
- e-Master Calendar Hearings: EOIR now requires all attorneys to register and obtain an EOIR ID Number. As far as I can tell, EOIR does nothing with these ID numbers. However, it (supposedly) is a first step towards electronic filing. Federal courts across the United States require electronic filing, and I see no reason that the Immigration Courts should not do the same. Once an attorney enters her appearance, she should be able to go on-line and plead to the allegations and charges in the Notice to Appear (the charging document in Immigration Court). She should also indicate the relief sought. If there is some reason that the lawyer needs to see the IJ, she can request to appear at a regular MCH. But for the large majority of cases, all the pleadings and requests for relief could be done on-line. How, you ask, would this be an improvement over the current system, where lawyers can file written pleadings? At least in my experience, written pleadings are a huge pain in the tuchus. IJs often ignore them until the last minute, and we have to repeatedly call the Court to see whether the IJ will rule on them. So they really are not worth the trouble. If there was an easy electronic system that actually worked, and we could avoid MCHs, attorneys would be much inclined to use that system. It would save Court and DHS time, and it would also save attorney time and perhaps reduce costs for the alien.
OK, I suppose that is more than enough for now. If anyone at EOIR wants to hire me to implement these changes, you know where to reach me...
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
If you follow the news from the Executive Office for Immigration Review or EOIR--the office that oversees the Immigration Courts--you are aware of the recent lawsuit filed by Judge Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor. Judge Tabaddor is an IJ in Los Angeles. She was appointed in 2005 and has been serving ever since. Judge Tabaddor also happens to be Iranian-American.
Judge Tabaddor has been mistreated by the executive Branch. We hope she doesn't Leave. We are Root-ing for her.
According to Judge Tabaddor's complaint against EOIR, trouble began for her in the summer of 2012 when the White House--considered by some a radical Muslim organization--invited her to attend a "Round Table with Iranian-American Community Leaders." After some hemming and hawing over the nature of the event, EOIR granted the Judge leave to attend. But afterward, EOIR banned Judge Tabaddor from adjudicating cases involving nationals from Iran. So in other words, an Iranian American Judge who is active in her community is not permitted to hear cases where the alien is from Iran.
On it's face, EOIR's decision seems completely ridiculous and indefensible. It would be like forcing members of the National Association of Women Judges to recuse themselves in cases involving women, or stopping members of a Jewish judges association from hearing cases involving Jews, etc., etc. But can EOIR's decision somehow be justified? Does it make sense to ban an Iranian-American who is involved in her community from hearing cases form Iran? Permit me to try to make that argument (as an asylum lawyer, tilting at windmills is my specialty).
Perhaps EOIR is concerned about the Judge because Iran is considered our enemy (or--on a good day--our rival). Allowing Judge Tabaddor to hear Iranian cases would be like allowing an American originally from the Eastern Block to serve in the White House during the Cold War (Zbigniew Brzezinski) or like allowing a German-American to lead the fight against Germany in WWI (John J. "Black Jack" Pershing) or against the Nazis in WWII (Major General Carl Spaatz). Hmm, maybe that argument doesn't work so well after all. Let me put it another way. If you are at war with Japan, you'd better imprison all Japanese-Americans. Wait. Maybe that is not such a good argument either. Let's try this a little differently.
It could be that EOIR is worried about the appearance of bias. Appearance is very important for judges. If an IJ is perceived as biased, it reduces our confidence in her decisions. It would be as if five Republican-appointed judges voted to end an election recount, giving the victory to the Republican presidential candidate. Oy. Let me give you a better example. Maybe it would be like allowing a Russian figure skating judge who is married to the director of the Russian Figure Skating Association to serve as a judge at the Sochi Olympics. And then the Russian skater miraculously wins. Harrumph. I guess that one doesn't work too well either. Maybe we should look at the problem another way.
What if we assume that Judge Tabaddor is, in fact, biased in favor (or against) Iranian respondents. If that is the case, why should the recusal order be limited to cases from Iran? Iran and Iraq fought a war recently, so probably the IJ is biased against Iraq and should not hear cases from that country either. Iran also fought a war with Greece back in the day, and if I were Iranian, I'd still be bitter about the Battle of Thermopylae. So the Judge should also be banned from hearing cases involving Greeks, or at least Spartans. Iran has endured invasions by Mongols and Arabs, so Judge Tabaddor obviously should not hear Mongolian or Arab cases, and since Mongolians were mixed in pretty good with the Chinese, we'd better also ban her from Chinese cases--just to be safe. And of course, Iran doesn't much like Christians, Baha'is or Jews, so the Judge should probably be kept away from cases involving those faiths. In addition, Iran has disputes with Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia. The Judge would have to be banned from hearing cases involving those nationals as well. And don't even get me started about cases involving Israelis. So basically, if Judge Tabaddor is biased, as EOIR seems to assume, the only cases she should decide involve people from Guyana or New Zealand. And maybe São Tomé, but I'm not even sure that's a country.
In the end, I really don't know whether Judge Tabaddor's lawsuit will succeed. IJs exist to implement the authority of the Attorney General. If the AG chooses to prevent certain IJs from reviewing cases from certain countries, that may be within his discretion. While the law may not be clear (at least to me), I have no doubt about which side is right. If an IJ behaves in an inappropriately biased manner, she should be removed from her job. But where--as here--there seems to be no question as to the Judge's integrity, her docket should not be restricted in this insulting and discriminatory way.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
If you are an attorney or an immigrant with a case before the Immigration Court, you've probably noticed that the computer system has been down for almost two weeks. The phone system for checking case status is not working, and there are all sorts of problems at the courts and the BIA. Apparently, the cause of these difficulties is that some servers in Fairfax, Virginia are broken and cannot easily be repaired. No one seems to know why this happened, and EOIR (the Executive Office for Immigration Review) is not telling us much. The EOIR website says only that they are experiencing a "hardware failure."
EOIR computer techs are working day and night to solve the problem.
As a public service, I have decided to step in and fill this information gap with unfounded speculation. I figure that if I take the time to write something down, people might as well believe it. So to all those waiting for the system to start up again, take comfort. I present to you the top 10 reasons that the EOIR computers are not working:
10. Juan Osuna forgot to pay the electric bill.
9. The Y2K bug finally kicked in.
8. The computer shut itself down after it played 35 million games of tic-tac-toe and learned that it is impossible to "win" a removal case.
7. It is getting more and more difficult to find new vacuum tubes and punch cards.
6. Once the computer calculated that the average time to the next hearing exceeds the life expectancy of the average respondent, it decided there was no point and turned itself off.
5. Everyone who signed up for Obamacare has accidentally been deported.
4. Someone asked the computer to figure out how the Asylum Clock works, and it blew up.
3. Joe Arpaio arrested the computer for helping "illegals" remain in the U.S.
2. If you build a 500 gigabyte computer, someone will file a 501 gigabyte case.
1. Everyone who knows how to fix a computer has already been deported.
There you have it. Some of these explanations may even prove to bear a relationship to reality. If so, remember that you heard it here first.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.