Cases flood immigration courts in Houston
Despite rise in cases, number of judges has changed little
By Susan Carroll
The Houston Chronicle, March 7, 2009
In a cramped hallway in Houstons immigration court building, a toddler dressed in his pajamas slept soundly, sprawled out on a Spiderman blanket on his fathers lap.
The wooden benches in a nearby courtroom were full, leaving a half-dozen immigrants and their attorneys to stand in the aisle.
As the hours ticked by, an elderly woman facing deportation to Mexico rested her head in her hands. It was more than three hours before the court called her case one of more than 30 on a judges calendar on a recent morning.
The scene is typical for Houstons immigration courts, which saw a roughly 40 percent increase in case load from 2002 to 2007. The situation here is part of a nationwide problem, critics say.
Nationally, the number of immigration prosecutions has increased significantly in recent years. Immigration judges received more than 334,000 matters including bonds, motions and removal proceedings in 2007, up from roughly 290,000 in 2002. Meanwhile, the number of immigration judges has remained flat, with 224 today compared with 225 in 2002.
Since 2002, the federal government has added one immigration judge in Texas, for a total of 23.
The federal government has acknowledged for years the need to employ more immigration judges, but the agency that handles the hiring, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, has struggled with bureaucracy and budget constraints.
David Burnham, who has studied the immigration court system extensively as co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse with Syracuse University, described EOIR as 'an agency adrift' during the past few years. But the blame shouldnt stop there, or with the prior administration, he said, adding that Congress hasnt 'stepped up to bat.'
In 2006, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pledged to revamp the system, with the hiring of judges listed as a top priority.
But last year, key members of Gonzales staff came under scrutiny amid reports they considered judicial candidates politics rather than qualifications in deciding appointments. The effort to find and appoint conservative and party-loyalist judges at times threatened to clog courts and delayed deportations, according to a Justice Department investigation.
In August 2007, the EOIR instituted a new screening and hiring policy for immigration judges designed to address concerns raised by the reports.
EOIR spokeswoman Elaine Komis said the agency 'continues to fill immigration judge vacancies as quickly as possible.'
EOIR has 24 judge vacancies and is in various stages of the selection process for most of those positions, she said. Komis said EOIR is hoping Congress will designate $5 million for the hiring of immigration judges as part of the 2009 budget, which is still awaiting approval.
Dana Leigh Marks, head of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the judges union, said the volume of cases moving through the court system has the potential to compromise judges decision-making, despite their best efforts.
Immigration judges decide whether people accused of violating U.S. immigration law should be deported. They handle sensitive cases, including asylum seekers who have expressed fear of deportation because they face potential persecution or even death in their home countries.
'We often have cases where the consequence of the ruling is as severe as a death penalty case, and we are conducting those hearings in traffic court settings,' Marks said.
The average judge in an immigration court hears about 1,200 removal proceedings every year, compared with an average annual case load of 480 for district judges, according to the Brookings Institution, a research organization in Washington, D.C. And whereas district court judges generally have two to three law clerks to assist them, immigration judges have one clerk for every six judges, Marks said.
Brittney Nystrom, senior legal adviser for the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, said the case-to-judge ratio is particularly troubling.
'It raises a lot of concerns for all of the players in the system,' Nystrom said. 'The immigration judges themselves are concerned that they dont have the resources or the time to adequately adjudicate their cases. The immigrants and the immigrant representatives are concerned they dont have time to present their cases.'
Some local immigration attorneys said the manpower shortage is of particular concern in Houstons two immigration courts, which in fiscal year 2007 received about 12,500 immigration matters. Thats up from 8,900five years earlier.
In the court, judges routinely have 30 to 40 matters scheduled in a single morning. Many cases are postponed some for three to six months at a time to give attorneys more time to prepare for court or to give petitioners additional time to hear back from immigration officials on pending applications.
Impact on due process
Raed Gonzalez, a Houston immigration attorney, said the high volume of cases has an adverse impact on clients due process. In some instances, the court refuses to wait for U.S. immigration officials to approve or deny a petition for legal permanent residency, which can take months to process.
'There are many people who are entitled to relief and the judges will not wait for them,' he said, adding that the judges are under pressure to clear cases quickly.
The court delays can affect clients personal lives, he said.
One client from Pakistan has been waiting five years for his case to be resolved in immigration court, Gonzalez said, adding that it has put stress on the mans marriage.