Over the past decade, immigration hearings have often resembled kangaroo court proceedings.  Worse, when challenges are filed at the Board of Immigration Appeals, the nation’s highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration law, it is not uncommon for the BIA to adopt the role of a rubber stamp.

Not surprisingly, public confidence in the immigration court process has eroded.

A Day At The Immigration Court

A few days ago, as I sat in the immigration court lobby, a distressed colleague stopped to ask me a question.  He had just received an unfavorable ruling.  An immigration judge ordered his client to be removed from the United States.  The judge held his client’s testimony was not specific enough about his family’s relocation plan if he was deported.

About 15 minutes later, another fellow bar member stormed out of a different courtroom across the hall.  She, too, was upset because her client had lost his case.  The judge held against her client because his testimony was too specific about his family’s relocation plans.

Given the current system of immigration appeals, I’m not sure their chances of winning on appeal are any better.

The ABA Report On Immigration Appeals

Recently, a report commissioned by the American Bar Association, Reforming the Immigration System: Proposals to Promote Independence, Fairness, Efficiency, and Professionalism in the Adjudication of Removal Cases (PDF), outlined concerns about the immigration appellate system.

According to the report, many of the current problems can be traced to “streamlining” procedures implemented between 1999 and 2002.  The changes were designed to address backlogs and delays – which presumably encouraged abuse of the immigration appellate system and caused hardships for immigrants with meritorious claims.

The changes have not worked out as intended.

In 1999 the first streamlining reforms took place, allowing a single Board member to affirm a decision of an immigration judge without opinion (“AWOs”) in a limited category of cases.  Before this change, all decisions required three Board members.

In 2002 streamlining took a huge leap forward.  These changes, noted the ABA:

  • Expanded the category of cases in which AWOs and single-member review were appropriate. Within the next year AWOs accounted for 36% of Board decisions.  Although this figure has decreased, short opinions remain the dominant form of BIA decision-making.  Now, the Board’s decision are often only two to three sentences, even when the issues appear to merit longer analysis.
  • Eliminated the BIA’s authority to conduct de novo fact finding, limiting review of fact and credibility determination to a “clearly erroneous” standard. This inhibits the Board’s ability to correct mistakes by immigration judges and to check against unwarranted disparities among judges in factually similar cases.
  • Imposed time limits for rendering decisions, requiring single-member opinions to be issued within 90 days and panel decisions within 180 days. These time limits place an unreasonable burden on immigrants and their attorneys in many cases, as well as serve as an irrational incentive for truncated BIA opinions.
  • Reduced the size of the BIA from 23 to 11 members. Even though the size of the Board had been increased back to 16 members, insufficient resources are still a major hurdle to adequately handling the 30,00 new appeals filed annually.

According to the ABA, the combination of these factors have caused a dearth of Board precedent and guidance for immigration courts, appellants, and immigration appeals lawyers.  To be designated as precedent, decisions must be issued by a three-member panel or the Board en banc.  As a result, the vast majority of Board decisions are now unpublished and, although binding on the parties, do not serve as precedent.

Immigration Appeals: Missing Authority, Absent Leadership

There are no cases, to the best of my knowledge, on point to guide my colleagues on what constitutes sufficient, but not too much, testimony about an immigrant’s relocation plans if he or she is forced to leave our country.

On appeal, my fellow bar members will need to pioneer their own paths.

Holding their breath is not advised.  As I wrote in Sleeping Justice: The Board of Immigration Appeals’ Failure to Lead, I have been waiting over 7 1/2 years for the BIA to clarify hardship factors in cancellation of removal cases.

Either standard used to deny my fellow bar members’ cases, in the absence of judicial clarity, is near tantamount to an unconscionable standard.

Like Congressman Gary Ackerman, “I’m in favor of immigration but we also need rules.”