SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Department of Justice makes it harder for vulnerable children and families to avoid deportation by hiding its priority immigration docketing policies from the public, the American Immigration Lawyers Association claims in court.
Joined by three other legal groups, the AILA sued the Justice Department and the Executive Office for Immigration Review on Tuesday in Federal Court, for failing to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for records on policies that govern a new immigration "rocket docket" program.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR, oversees immigration courts and judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area - the lead plaintiff - says the dearth of information makes navigating the new system nearly impossible for newly arrived immigrant children, families and their attorneys.
"As a result, attorneys, unrepresented children, and unrepresented adults with children must struggle to plan for and present expedited cases involving complex legal issues and procedures under unclear, unstated timelines and policies - the very policies that are the subject of plaintiff's FOIA request," the complaint states.
Refugee groups have often accused the EOIR of abdicating its duty, by issuing virtually blanket denials of asylum to people from countries that are U.S. allies, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, and granting asylum to citizens of "enemy" countries, such as Cuba.
The EOIR thereby acts as a branch of foreign policy, rather than as a branch of the Department of Justice, according to this analysis. Very seldom does the Board of Immigration Appeals overturn a denial of political asylum. Most such reversals are granted, if at all, by appealing BIA rulings to the federal courts.
The EOIR has responded: "Asylum adjudication does not lend itself well to statistical analysis." That EOIR " Fact Sheet ," of Nov. 5, 2007, does not provide any statistical analysis; it merely describes the standard process.
The groups submitted their FOIA request on Aug. 4, 2014 and after receiving no response filed a second request on Aug. 12, 2015, seeking details on the standards, guidelines and procedures of the rocket docket system.
The Justice Department responded with some information on Nov. 13, 2015, providing two charts listing the locations of immigration courts that handle expedited dockets, and statistics on initial intakes at each location.
But that's just a small fraction of the records requested, the attorneys say, and they need the information to settle questions of due process. Asylum applicants and newly arrived immigrants receive conflicting information on the number and length of continuances they are allowed to find lawyers to represent them, according to the lawsuit.
For those put into the fast-track program, having legal representation increased by 14 times the chances that women with children would get to stay in the United States, a Syracuse University study of immigration data from June 2015 found.
"The compressed timeline for the cases of adults with children on the expedited docket and the problems thereby caused, along with the lack of clear guidelines, undoubtedly has had an impact that for many may mean return to grave harm," according to the complaint.
It cites recent reports of immigration raids, including a New York Times report on the arrest of more than 120 mothers and their children, who were taken to a South Texas detention center to await deportation in early January.
The groups want the Department of Justice and EOIR to issue a determination on the FOIA requests within seven days, process the requested records within 30 days and a fee waiver.
Plaintiffs include the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.
They are represented by Thomas Burke with Davis Wright Tremaine in San Francisco.
The Department of Justice did not respond Tuesday afternoon to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit and its policies.