Expedited Removal is Not the Answer to the Backlog

With the immigration court backlog at over 600,000 cases and rising, immigration law commentator (and fellow BIA alum) Nolan Rappaport recently suggested that the present administration might view the  increased use of expedited removal as “the only viable alternative” to shrink the swelling tide of cases. My fellow blogger Paul Schmidt has opposed such approach; I wish to join him in adding my arguments as to why the expansion of expedited removal would be unacceptable.

If the criminal court system were to be flooded to the breaking point, the solution could not be to let supervisory police officers decide which defendants might have a reasonable enough chance of being found innocent and get to go to court, and just find the rest guilty without the right to a trial.  However, that is pretty much the premise of expedited removal.  An overwhelming volume of cases cannot be used to justify the stripping away of due process protections.

Our immigration courts have evolved significantly over the decades.  Deportation hearings were once conducted by “special inquiry officers,” who were attorneys working for the INS.  Beginning in 1973, immigration judges began presiding over hearings.  In 1983, those judges were separated from the INS into a separate adjudicatory agency, EOIR.  In 2002, INS was moved into three components within the newly-created DHS, while EOIR remained in the Department of Justice.  The strong motive behind these developments was that the agency charged with enforcement was not suited to serve as a neutral factfinder and decision maker.  Increasing the scale of expedited removal would undo the above progress and return decision-making into the hands of the enforcement branch - the legal equivalent of having the fox guard the hen house.

Immigration judges render decisions independently, with no pressure or influence from their higher-ups.  This is not true of asylum officers.  I had one case years ago in which the asylum officer’s supervisor so adamantly opposed the grant of asylum that the officer had to wait until the supervisor went on vacation, and then had the acting supervisor sign off approving the grant.  I have also heard of an asylum office director pressuring the staff to grant fewer cases in order to bring the office’s grant rate closer to the lower grant rate of another asylum office.  Furthermore, to the extent that those seeking expedited removal are able to obtain counsel in the short time frame provided (and while detained, sometimes in remote settings), asylum officers allow attorneys a greatly reduced role in the process.  In immigration court, the attorney makes legal arguments and objections, questions the respondent, and lays the foundation for documents to be offered into evidence.  Even in full asylum office interviews, attorneys are relegated to sitting in the back row and taking notes.  As the government’s own statistics show that represented asylum seekers are twice as likely to be granted relief (and a recent TRAC study found representation to make a grant of asylum five times more likely), the asylum office’s minimizing of the attorney’s role clearly lessens the asylum seeker’s chance of success.  

Expedited removal has really never worked well.  In opposing its implementation in the mid-1990s, myself and other advocates argued that the legal threshold - the newly-created “credible fear” standard - was problematic.  When the 1980 Refugee Act adopted the legal standard of “well-founded fear” for asylum claims, INS interpreted the term to mean “more likely than not;” it took seven years of litigation and a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to correctly define the standard as requiring only a 10 percent chance of persecution.  But expedited removal asked us to trust the same INS to properly interpret the vague new “credible fear” standard, and this time without the right to seek judicial review.  Not surprisingly, so many mistakes were made after the standard was implemented that by mid-1997, the then INS director of asylum instructed asylum officers to simply find all applicants professing a fear of persecution to have met the credible fear standard.  Those who claimed no fear in their countries were summarily removed; INS claimed that the majority of arrivees were in this latter group.

But where they really?  A person arriving in this country only gets a credible fear interview if they indicate to the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer who first encounters them that they fear return to their country.  Two studies conducted over a decade apart by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government entity, found serious problems with the screening process of those arriving but not found admissible to the U.S.  According to USCIRF, some arrivees were never asked whether they feared return; others who were asked and responded in the affirmative had “no” recorded in their statements, which were often not read back to them.  The USCIRF report cited instances in which those wishing to seek asylum were pressured into signing inaccurate statements, or even into retracting their fear claims and withdrawing their applications for admission.

The answer to the immigration court backlog is clearly not to subject more people to the flawed and biased expedited removal system in lieu of  removal hearings.  To my knowledge, every other high volume court employs prosecutorial discretion and stipulated settlements to lessen the case load.  Plea bargains are employed in everything from murder to traffic court cases.  Under the Obama administration, prosecutorial discretion was employed in immigration court and significantly helped prosecutors and judges deal with the caseload.  For unknown reasons, the present administration has ended this useful practice.  DHS attorneys are also being instructed to oppose requests to terminate proceedings made by those wishing to leave the U.S. to attend immigrant visas abroad.  These intending immigrants want to leave the country, and will only be allowed to return legally if they are found by a U.S. consular officer to be qualified and admissible to this country; under the prior administration, termination under these circumstances was readily agreed to by DHS.  At the same time DHS is forcing so many immigrants to unnecessarily remain in removal proceedings, the agency will not put into proceedings those who want to be there in order to apply for certain types of relief that may only be granted by an immigration judge, such as cancellation of removal.  Preventing immigrants from obtaining legal status to which they might be entitled seems suspiciously consistent with the present administration’s desire to stem the pace of naturalization in order to preserve the voting bloc that brought them to office last year.

Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

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