Immigration Law

Paul Schmidt's Speech to the ABA Commission on Immigration (May 4, 2018)

Paul W. Schmidt, May 4, 2018 - "CARICATURE OF JUSTICE: Stop The Attack On Due Process, Fundamental Fairness, and Human Decency In Our Captive, Dysfunctional U.S. Immigration Courts


Thank you, Madam Moderator. I am pleased to be on this distinguished panel. And, I am particularly delighted that EOIR Director James McHenry has joined us.

Clearly, this isn’t about Director McHenry, who by my calculations was still in law school when the wheels began coming off the EOIR wagon. Also, as a former Senior Executive in past Administrations of both parties, I’m familiar with being sent out to “defend the party line” which sometimes proved to be “mission impossible.”

For me, no more disclaimers, no more bureaucratic BS, no more sugar coating, no more “party lines.” I’m going to “tell it like it is” and what you need to do to reestablish Due Process and fundamental fairness as the only acceptable mission of the United States Immigration Courts.

It’s still early in the morning, but as Toby Keith would say, “It’s me, baby, with your wakeup call!”

Nobody, not even Director McHenry, can fix this system while it remains under the control of the DOJ. The support, meaningful participation, and ideas of the judges and staff who work within it and the public,particularly the migrants and their lawyers, who rely on it, is absolutely essential.

But, the current powers that be at the DOJ have effectively excluded the real stakeholders from the process. Worse,they have blamed the victims,you, the stakeholders, for the very problems created by political meddling at the DOJ. We’re on a path “designed and destined for failure.”

The decline of the Due Process mission at EOIR spans several Administrations. But, recently, it has accelerated into freefall as the backlog largely created by “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” (“ADR”) by political officials at the DOJ over the past several Administrations and chronic understaffing have stripped U.S. Immigration Judges of all effective control over their dockets, made them appear feckless, and undermined public confidence in the fairness, independence, and commitment to individual Due Process of our Immigration Courts.

The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment is there for one, and only one reason. To protect all individuals in the United States, not just citizens, from abuses by the Federal Government. In simple terms, it protects individuals appearing in Immigration Court from overstepping and overzealous enforcement actions by the DHS. It is not there to insure either maximum removals by the DHS or satisfaction of all DHS enforcement goals.

Nor is it there to “send messages” – other than the message that individuals arriving in the United States regardless of status will be treated fairly and humanely. It serves solely to protect the rights of the individual, and definitely not to fulfill the political agenda of any particular Administration.

The “EOIR vision” which a group of us in Senior Management developed under the late Director Kevin Rooney was to “be the world’s best administrative tribunals guaranteeing fairness and due process for all.” Sadly, that noble vision is now dead and buried.

In fact, when I mentioned it to a recently hired EOIR attorney just prior to my retirement in 2016, she looked at me as if I were from outer space. Indeed, nobody in his or her right mind would seriously suggest that today’s Immigration Courts are on track to meet that vision or that it motivates the actions of today’s DOJ.

No, instead, the Department of Justice’s ever-changing priorities, Aimless Docket Reshuffling, and morbid fascination with increased immigration detention as a means of deterrence have turned our Immigration Court system back into a tool of DHS enforcement. Obviously, it is long past time for an independent U.S. Immigration Court to be established outside the Executive Branch.

I work with a group of retired colleagues on various Amicus Briefs trying to defend and restore the concept of Due Process in Immigration Court. I doubt that it’s what any of us thought we’d be doing in retirement. As one of those colleagues recently said, it’s truly heartbreaking for those of us who devoted large segments of our professional lives to improving Due Process and fairness in the Immigration Courts to see what has become of those concepts and how they are being mocked and trashed on a daily basis in our Immigration Court system.

Those of us watching from retirement treat each day’s EOIR news with a mixture of disbelief, disappointment, anger, and total outrage. But, it drives and inspires us to action to halt and reverse the travesty of justice now taking place in our US Immigration Courts.

I am one of the very few living participants in the 1983 creation of EOIR when it was spun off from the “legacy INS” to create judicial independence and better court administration during the Reagan Administration.

And, I can assure you that the Reagan Administration was not filled with “knee jerk liberal.” No, those were tough, but fair minded and practical, law enforcement officials. The other “survivors” who come to mind are former Director and BIA Judge Tony Moscato and then Associate Attorney General Rudy Giuliani, whom I understand is “otherwise occupied” these days.

Sadly, although EOIR appeared to have prospered for a period of time after its creation, it has now regressed to essentially the same problematic state it was in prior to 1983: lack of actual and perceived judicial independence; a weak appellate board that fails to function as an independent judiciary promoting due process; an unwieldy structure, poor administrative support, and outdated technology; a glacial one-sided judicial selection process that effectively has eliminated private sector attorneys with actual experience in representing immigrants and asylum applicants in court from the 21st Century Immigration Judiciary; and an overwhelming backlog with no end in sight.

Only now, the backlog is multiples of what it was back in 1983, nearing an astounding 700,000 cases! And additional problems have arisen, including grotesque overuse of detention courts in obscure, inappropriate locations to discourage representation and inhibit individuals from fully exercising their legal rights; a lack of pro bono and low bono attorney resources; and new unprecedented levels of open disdain and disrespect by Administration officials outside EOIR, at the DOJ, for the two groups that are keeping Due Process afloat in the Immigration Courts: private attorneys, particularly those of you who are pro bono and low bono attorneys representing vulnerable asylum applicants and the Immigration Judges themselves, who are demeaned by  arrogant, ignorant officials in the DOJ who couldn’t do an Immigration Judge’s job if their lives depended on it.

But, wait, and I can’t make this stuff up, folks, it gets even worse! According to recent news reports, the DOJ is actually looking for ways to artificially “jack up” the backlog to over 1,000,000 cases – you heard me, one million cases– almost overnight. They can do this by taking cases that were properly “administratively closed” and removed from the Courts’ already overwhelmed “active dockets” and adding them to the backlog.

Administratively closed cases involve individuals who probably never should have been in proceedings in the first place – DACA recipients, TPS recipients, those waiting in line for U visa numbers, potential legal immigrants with applications pending at USCIS, and long-time law-abiding residents who work, pay taxes, are integrated into our communities, have family equities in the United States, and were therefore quite properly found to be low to non-existent “enforcement priorities” by the last Administration.

Some of you in the audience might be in one of these groups. They are your neighbors, friends, fellow-students, co-workers, fellow worshippers, employees, workmen, child care workers, and home care professionals., and other essential members of our local communities.

And you can bet, that rather than taking responsibility for this unnecessary cruelty, waste, fraud, and abuse of our court system, the DOJ will attempt to falsely shift blame to Immigration Judges and private attorneys like those of you in the audience who are engaged in the thankless job of defending migrants in the toxic atmosphere intentionally created by this Administration and its antics.

Expose this scam! Don’t let the DOJ get away with this type of dishonest and outrageous conduct aimed at destroying our Immigration Court system while disingenuously directing the blame elsewhere.

Basically, respondents’ attorneys and Immigration Judges have been reduced to the role of “legal gerbils on an ever faster moving treadmill” governed by the unrestrained whims and indefensible, inhumane “terror creating” so-called “strategies” of the DHS enforcement authorities. And, instead of supporting our Immigration Judges in their exercise of judicial independence and unbiased decision-making and nurturing and enhancing the role of the private attorneys, the DOJ, inexcusably, during this Administration has undercut them in every possible way.

For the last 16 years politicians of both parties have largely stood by and watched the unfolding Due Process disaster in the U.S. Immigration Courts without doing anything about it, and in some cases actually making it worse. 

The notion that Immigration Court reform must be part of so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” is simply wrong. The Immigration Courts can and must be fixed sooner rather than later, regardless of what happens with overall immigration reform. It’s time to let your Senators and Representatives know that we need due process reforms in the Immigration Courts as one of our highest national priorities

Folks, the U.S Immigration Court system is on the verge of collapse. And, there is every reason to believe that the misguided “enforce and detain to the max” policies being pursued by this Administration, at levels over which Director McHenry has no realistic control, will drive the Immigration Courts over the edge. When that happens, a large chunk of the entire American justice system and the due process guarantees that make American great and different from most of the rest of the world will go down with it.

Our Constitution and our protection laws, which adhere to international treaties that we have signed, are not“loopholes.” Treating migrants fairly, humanely, and in accordance with the rule of law does noshow “weakness.” It shows our strength as a nation.

There is a bogus narrative being spread by this Administration that refugees who are fleeing for their lives from dangerous situations in the Northern Triangle, that we had a hand in creating, are mere “economic migrants” not deserving of our protection. Untrue!

Migrants should be given a reasonable chance to get lawyers; an opportunity to prepare, document, and present their cases in a non-coercive setting; access to a truly independent, unbiased judge who is committed to guaranteeing individual rights and the fair application of U.S. protection laws in the generous spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision in Cardoza-Fonseca and the BIA’s oft cited but seldom followed precedent in Matter of Mogharrabi; and a fair decision, preferably in writing, without being placed under duress by unnecessary, wasteful, inhumane detention and separation of families. This Court System should not be run by a Cabinet Member who has already announced his predetermination of the preferred outcomes and his total disdain for migrants and their lawful representatives.

Once fully documented, many of these cases probably could be granted either as asylum cases or as withholding of removal cases under the CAT in short hearings or by stipulation if the law were applied in a fair and unbiased manner. Those who don’t qualify for protection after a fair and impartial adjudication, and a chance to appeal administratively and to the Article III Courts, can be returned under the law.

This Administration and particularly this DOJ depend on individuals not being competently represented and therefore not being able to assert their rights to either legal status or fair treatment. But, there are still real,truly independent Article III Courts out there that can intervene and put an end to this “deportation railroad” and its trampling on our Constitution, our laws, our values, and our dignity as human beings. For, friends, if we are unwilling to stand up against tyranny and protect the legal and Constitutional rights of the most vulnerable among us, like asylum seekers, then our own rights and liberties as Americans mean nothing!

I urge each of you in this audience to join the “New Due Process Army” and stand up for “truth, justice, and the American way” in our failing, misused, and politically abused United States Immigration Courts and to continue the fight, for years or decades if necessary, until this system finally is forced to deliver on its noble but unfulfilled promise of “being the world’s best tribunals, guaranteeing fairness and due process for all.” Harm to one is harm to all! Due process forever!"