May 18, 2011 STATEMENT — LIRS Statement for Hearing on Improving Efficiency and Ensuring Justice in the Immigration Court System

Press Contact: Fabio Lomelino, Assistant Director for Media Relations
410-230-2721, lirspress@lirs.org

BALTIMORE, May 18, 2011—Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the national organization established by Lutheran churches in the United States to serve uprooted people, is grateful for Senator Leahy’s decision to hold a public hearing and undertake a critical examination of the challenges faced by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

“LIRS and our broad network of social ministry organizations, churches and church leaders are committed to ensuring that U.S. immigration policies are consistent with our country’s fundamental values and afford justice to all,” says Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO. “The first two essential steps in this direction are providing EOIR with funding for robust and efficient case adjudication and custody determinations and expanding funding for Legal Orientation Program to cover all detention centers that house immigrants.”

Limited Funding for EOIR Limits Access to Fair Process in Immigration Proceedings

With approximately 84% of detained immigrants appearing before the courts without an attorney, immigration judges are increasingly burdened by presiding over cases presented by individuals who are ill-informed and unprepared to make educated decisions about their cases.¹ These factors make the court process less efficient and more prone to reaching improper conclusions. Dana L. Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said that judges often feel asylum hearings are “like holding death penalty cases in traffic court.”²

Increased Immigration Enforcement, Yet Limited Funding Support for Courts

Despite generous congressional support for Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) immigration enforcement initiatives, EOIR has not received sufficient support to keep up with the cases. From FY 2004 to 2010, DHS’s budget for border and interior enforcement grew by over $6 billion. During this time period, EOIR’s budget increased by just over $100 million.

Between FY 2001 and 2009, the number of immigrants detained by the federal government increased from 209,000 to 383,524. The dramatic growth in detention has contributed to the overwhelming caseloads for EOIR’s immigration judges, as most non-citizens in detention are pursuing their immigration cases. The backlog of cases at the immigration courts is 44% higher than at the end of FY 2008 and the average time for a case pending in immigration courts is now 467 days.³ The number of cases pending in the immigration courts is at an all-time high.

EOIR’s Legal Orientation Program Improves Immigration Court Efficiencies But Its Reach is Limited

The vast majority of detained immigrants are unrepresented by legal counsel in their legal proceedings before the court. EOIR’s Legal Orientation Program (LOP), operational only 27 of the approximately 250 detention facilities nationwide, helps to fill in important gaps.

LOP improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the immigration court process, producing significant cost saving benefits to the government. According to an EOIR-commissioned report, LOP participants conclude their immigration court cases an average of 13 days faster than detainees who do not receive LOP. A reduced duration of immigration court proceedings leads to a reduction in detention time. The report also reveals the following findings:

  • EOIR’s immigration judges have praised LOP for better preparing immigrants to identify forms of relief and to recognize when no forms of relief are available.
  • Detention facility staff have also observed a reduction in behavioral problems when detainees have access to legal information.
  • LOP participants who are released on bond or their own recognizance are more likely to appear for future court hearings than those who did not participate in the program.

The case below demonstrates the benefits of LOP to non-citizen detainees and to improving the efficiency of the immigration courts.

Since 1991, Somalia has been enduring an ongoing civil war. In the late 1990s, Mr. Mukatr Allie, a young Somali boy, was living with his uncle because he had a medical condition that could not be addressed in his village. He returned to his village and discovered that his house had been ransacked. His father and three brothers had been killed. He didn’t know where his mother or his eight other siblings were. His uncle then abandoned him, leaving him all alone. At the encouragement of a neighbor, he escaped to Nairobi. He remained there for a few years, but faced repeated harassment by the local police.

He fled again in search of safety and protection passing through Europe, the Caribbean and South America. In April 2010, at the age of 21, he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Mr. Allie would later say, “I didn’t feel safe. There was no justice, a lot of corruption. My original idea wasn’t to come to the United States. I just needed to get out.” DHS officials apprehended and transferred him to the Northwest Detention Center, a privately run jail in Tacoma, Washington.

Mr. Allie was afraid to return to Somalia because he was opposed to Al Shabaab, an Islamic insurgent group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States government. Al Shabaab controls central and south Somalia. Mr. Allie thought that he would be targeted if he were deported.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), a member of LIRS’s Asylum and Immigration network, met Mr. Allie while providing LOP presentations. NWIRP, the local LOP provider, recognized that he was eligible for asylum. In June 2010 Mr. Allie filled out and submitted his own asylum application and LOP connected him with pro bono legal counsel for further assistance in court proceedings. In his August 2010 asylum hearing, an immigration judge approved his asylum application. He was released from jail, nearly 5 months after arriving to the United States.

Had Mr. Allie not received basic legal information through LOP, he may not have known that he was eligible for asylum. Moreover, if he did not know about his eligibility for asylum and how to fill out the application, he likely would have asked the immigration judge for more time to determine what his legal option – wasting valuable court time and resources.

For individuals, LOP educates detained immigrants so that they can, at the very least, understand their legal options and responsibilities and make more informed decisions about their immigration cases. Immigrants in detention are often housed in areas that are far from friends, family, attorneys, and other social services providers. LOP helps to mitigate the isolation of detention by providing detainees with basic information on forms of relief from removal, how to accelerate repatriation through the removal process, how to represent themselves without an attorney, and how to obtain legal representation.

LIRS recommendations to Congress:

  • Provide EOIR with robust funding.U.S. immigration courts need more staff and resources to address the overwhelming number of cases being referred by DHS and to allow them the time and legal support to carefully consider their cases
  • Expand LOP funding to cover all detention centers that house immigrants. Increased LOP funding would improve immigration court efficiencies and ensure that individuals in detention receive basic information.
  • Eliminate the one-year filing deadline for asylum seekers. U.S. laws must be changed to ensure the efficient use of EOIR and DHS resources and the protection of bona fide refugees.
  • Extend initial jurisdiction of all asylum cases filed by children under the age of 21 to DHS’s Asylum Office. A change in law is needed to best utilize the expertise and strengths of DHS Asylum Officers, reduce the burdens on immigration courts and prevent vulnerable children from having to face adversarial asylum proceedings.

LIRS welcomes refugees and migrants on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership advocating with and on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations, and for providing services to migrants through over 60 grassroots legal and social service partners across the United States.

If you have any questions about this statement, please feel free to contact Eric B. Sigmon, Director for Advocacy at (202) 626-7943 or via email at esigmon@lirs.org.

 

To read the April 5, 2011 Associated Press article, “Immigration Courts: Troubled System, Long Waits, click here: http://bit.ly/gK17b4.

To read the June 11, 2010 Seattle Times article about Mr. Mukatr Allie and other East African asylum seekers, click here: http://bit.ly/b3NBr8.

To read Department of Justice Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks on the Legal Orientation Program, click here: http://1.usa.gov/aWMrXb.

To read the LIRS statement in support of the Refugee Protection Act, click here: http://lirs.org/press-inquiries/press-room/061611statement/.

To read the LIRS statement on DHS’s new parole policy, click here: http://lirs.org/press-inquiries/press-room/122209statement/.



[1] Vera Institute for Justice, Improving Efficiency and Promoting Justice in the Immigration System: Lessons from the Legal Orientation Program, May 2008, http://www.vera.org/download?file=1780/LOP percent2BEvaluation_May2008_final.pdf.

[2]Lawyers Back Creating New Immigration Courts,” The New York Times, February 8, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/us/09immig.html.

[3]“Immigration Case Backlog Still Growing in FY 2011,” Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (2010), http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/246/.