New Appleseed Investigation Finds Immigration Court Improvements, Recommends Additional Changes

(Chicago)  The Obama administration has made progress in improving the U.S. immigration court system, but much remains to be done, according to Reimagining the Immigration Court Assembly Line, a report by public interest justice centers Appleseed and Chicago Appleseed with pro bono counsel Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and Latham & Watkins LLP.

This report updates Appleseed’s 2009 report Assembly Line Injustice, which examined the accuracy, legitimacy and efficiency of the immigration courts. The new report concludes that, since 2009, the administration has made some substantial improvements and has initiated some overdue changes, but the immigration courts still fail too often to provide an adequate system of justice.

“Everyone in the system must step away from their spots on the assembly line, assume leadership and be held accountable for transforming the immigration courts into an accurate, legitimate and efficient system of justice,” noted Betsy Cavendish, Appleseed’s executive director.

Steven Schulman, pro bono partner at Akin Gump, said, “The administration’s improvements are welcome, but in order to ensure consistent and just treatment of those subject to the U.S. immigration court system, constructive change must continue until immigrants are no longer denied due process and a fair hearing because of their unfamiliarity with the system or the system’s own inadequacies.”

Appleseed identified nine areas in which it evaluated progress and proposed change:

  1. Reforming the Immigration Judge Selection Process -- Political influence in selection has abated, but the immigration bench needs greater diversity.
  2. Giving Immigration Judges the Tools to Achieve Justice -- The number of judges has increased by 22 percent since 2009, but the caseload has increased by 48 percent.
  3. Cultivating Professionalism in Immigration Court -- The Department of Justice (DOJ) has improved judicial professionalism through training and discipline, though some practitioners report instances of unprofessional conduct on the bench.
  4. Empowering DHS Trial Attorneys -- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adopted a new prosecutorial discretion policy, but it has not yet yielded meaningful results.
  5. Providing Effective Interpretation -- Too many poor translators and incomplete translations put non-English-speaking immigrants at a serious disadvantage.
  6. Reducing the Unfairness of Videoconferencing -- DOJ increased its reliance on video hearings for detained immigrants, and the quality of the video hearings often skews the result against the immigrant.
  7. Improve the Reliability of Court Records -- DOJ has upgraded its hearing recording system, but immigrants still face unnecessary hurdles to obtain their immigration files from DHS.
  8. Helping the Unrepresented -- DOJ has significantly improved access to counsel and information, but far too many immigrants still appear in court without a lawyer.
  9. Getting it Right on Appeal -- The Board of Immigration Appeals has weaned itself off “affirmances without opinion,” but still does not issue enough precedential opinions or make other decisions public.

The full report is available here.

Appleseed is a nonprofit network of public interest justice centers and professionals dedicated to building a society where opportunities are genuine, access to the law is universal and equal, and government advances the public interest.

UNICEF Mexico recently honored Appleseed’s last immigration report with first prize for best major investigation. Children at the Border (2011), which was also investigated and written in conjunction with Akin Gump, focuses on the treatment of unaccompanied Mexican minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Founded in 1945, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP is a leading international law firm with offices in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

# # #