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Groups Call for Independent Immigration Court System

July 17, 2019 (2 min read)

Ernie Smith, Associations Now, July 15, 2019

"Amid a growing crisis, legal associations have called on Congress to pass laws that would remove immigration courts from Justice Department control, emphasizing the inherent conflict of interest.

Four major legal groups are calling on Congress to make changes to the backlogged immigration courts that have buckled under the control of the Justice Department.

The American Bar Association (ABA), the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the Federal Bar Association (FBA), and the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) reached out to Congress last week calling on the body to create an independent immigration court system that isn’t managed by the part of the executive branch responsible for prosecuting immigrants.

“As a result, the Attorney General is charged with being both lead prosecutor and lead judge in immigration cases,” the letter, addressed to members of the House and Senate, says. “This inherent conflict of interest is made worse by the fact that immigration judges are considered merely government attorneys, a classification that fails to recognize the significance of their judicial duties and leaves them particularly vulnerable to political pressure and interference in case management.”

The groups, speaking together on this issue for the first time, noted the significant backlog, which stands at nearly 900,000 cases, and said Justice Department policies limited opportunities for fair hearings and made the backlog worse.

“What exacerbates that is that the Department of Justice has implemented policies that are making it more difficult for the courts to operate efficiently and are increasing that backlog, so those factors are coming together in the confluence of pressure that I believe is being felt more seriously on the Hill than it has in past years,” AILA Director of Government Relations Greg Chen said in comments reported by Business Insider.

The group added that using quotas for immigration judges and tying them to performance reviews meant that they often had “to decide cases under strict deadlines or face potential discipline.”

The associations called for the immigration court to be taken away from the Justice Department’s control and established outside of the executive branch.

The issues raised by the legal groups aren’t new—ABA made a similar call in a report it released in March, and other such recommendations have been made since the 1990s—but the issue is coming to a head during the current immigration crisis, which has also suffered from a shortage of immigration judges.

Recently, the Justice Department announced it would cut the number of in-person translators at court hearings and replace them with videos informing migrants of their rights. This issue further highlighted the concerns of the groups, including NAIJ President Emerita Denise Noonan Slavin, a former immigration judge.

“Court funds should be used to ensure the court operates efficiently and fairly,” Slavin said, according to Business Insider.

The groups emphasized that independent control would make the system more efficient while providing better access to justice.

“In its current state, the immigration court system requires a structural overhaul to solve its foundational problems,” the groups stated in their letter."