FOIA Reveals Spotty Procedures in Immigration Courts

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Immigration “rocket docket” files obtained through a FOIA lawsuit reveal lack of policies, procedures and training for immigration judges, raising questions about how and why cases get expedited, four attorneys’ groups said Tuesday.

The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings is one of four groups that sued the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR, which runs immigration courts, in February 2016.

The groups — including the American Immigration Lawyers Association — claimed the Department of Justice, which oversees EOIR, refused to turn over records on policies and procedures for expedited immigration dockets, or “rocket dockets,” in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

“It was pretty frustrating how not transparent the government was,” Christine Lin, an attorney with the Center, said Tuesday. “When you put vulnerable children and women on expedited dockets, there needs to be transparency that is rapid. And they didn’t do that in a timely manner.”

The groups say the lack of clear policies and guidelines made it harder for unaccompanied minors, one-parent families and their attorneys to navigate the system and avoid deportation.

In July 2014, the Obama administration directed immigration courts to fast-track cases of “recent border crossers,” responding to a surge of unaccompanied minors across the border.

That directive was rescinded in a Jan. 31 memo this year by Chief Immigration Judge MaryBeth Keller, who directed courts to prioritize only the dockets of detained immigrants or detainees who had to be released on bond after long detentions.

In a joint stipulation filed Monday, the U.S. government agreed to pay the immigrant rights groups $52,000 in litigation costs to settle the FOIA suit.

The groups received the last batch of requested documents in December 2016, Lin said.

“It showed there weren’t a lot of policies and procedures in place for how to conduct these surge dockets,” she said.

The groups requested records on how immigration judges were trained to handle the speedier dockets, but the only records they received detailed very limited training for judges in New York, Lin said.

“The takeaway was that they didn’t really train immigration judges,” Lin said. “They didn’t produce anything else. It showed a lack of training of immigration judges on how to deal with expedited dockets.”

Lin said the records revealed that decisions on whether to expedite cases are generally left to Department of Homeland Security officials, who write the charging documents, instead of judges.

Lin said the decision to expedite should be made by immigration judges, who are supposed to be impartial. Instead, a simple notation on a charging document added by a DHS official automatically fast-tracks deportation hearings.

In their original lawsuit, the legal groups complained that asylum seekers were given conflicting information on the number and length of continuances they were allowed as they looked for a lawyer.

Lin said those questions were never answered by the disclosed files, and the decisions appear to be based purely on each immigration judge’s discretion.

“Legal representatives would be able to provide better legal representation if we actually knew what the policies and the guidance was,” Lin said. “It’s a due process concern for sure if they don’t have these policies in place, and you’re learning as you go.”
Lin said the groups also received data showing the number of immigrants who were ordered removed in absentia through the fast-tracked docket system.

She said attorneys will be working with some of those people to challenge deportation orders and “revive those cases so they can have their day in court.”

Lin said the groups are still analyzing some of the data they received and hope to make it publicly available.

The other plaintiffs were the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.

Justice Department representative Lauren Alder Reid said in an email that “several public memoranda exist discussing the management of the previously prioritized dockets,” but offered no further comment.

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