On December 22, New York attorney Bryan S. Johnson filed a complaint with the Assistant Chief Immigration Judge for Conduct and Professionalism against Chief Immigration Judge MaryBeth Keller. The basis for the complaint was the Chief Judge’s issuance of guidelines to immigration judges on the handling of cases involving juveniles, including unaccompanied children (OPPM 17-03, Dec. 20, 2017). In that directive, Judge Keller instructed immigration judges that in spite of the sympathetic factors involved in children’s cases, “judges must remain neutral and impartial when adjudicating juvenile cases and shall not display any appearance of impropriety when presiding over such cases.” The complaint argues that such directive instructs immigration judges to violate federal statute, specifically the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (“TVPRA”), which requires the Attorney General to train immigration judges to “work with unaccompanied alien children, including identifying children who are victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons, and children for whom asylum or special immigrant relief may be appropriate.” 8 U.S.C. § 1232(e).
Instructing judges to “remain neutral and impartial,” while open to interpretation, will be perceived by many as requiring passivity. As one senior judge explained to me when I was new to the bench, judges should consider themselves blank slates and only consider what the parties have chosen to write on that slate. However, exceptions exist. In a precedent decision issued 20 years ago, the BIA held that in asylum cases in which the parties have not presented enough evidence to provide an adequate record, immigration judges should themselves present country condition evidence into the record. The Board cited favorably to the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status which defines the role of the adjudicator as to “ensure that the applicant presents his case as fully as possible and with all available evidence.” Matter of S-M-J-, 21 I&N Dec. 722, 729 (BIA 1997). Decided by a BIA that possessed some brilliant minds and courage, the Board in S-M-J- established that there are times that an immigration judge must not remain neutral when doing so will deny an asylum seeker justice.
Ten years later, the Chief Immigration Judge issued guidance to immigration judges handling juvenile cases to take a proactive approach, due to the vulnerability of the child respondents. It bears noting that the 2007 guidelines were issued under a Republican administration. Obviously, a neutral, passive approach by the judge will not ensure a fair hearing where the two parties involved are the Department of Homeland Security, represented in court by one of its attorneys, and a young (and possibly unrepresented) child. In such circumstances, the judge must to some degree advocate for the child to “ensure that the applicant presents his case as fully as possible and with all available evidence,” to use the language of S-M-J-. In response to this need, EOIR created special juvenile dockets, and provided specialized training to the immigration judges chosen to preside over them. In 2008, Congress passed the TVPRA, the statute relied upon by attorney Johnson in his complaint. In 2013, EOIR created an Assistant Chief Immigration Judge position specifically dedicated to “vulnerable populations.”
EOIR has the additional opportunity to create a more level playing field by assigning counsel to all unrepresented juveniles appearing in immigration court. Yet the agency strongly opposed this solution in a class-action lawsuit filed by advocacy groups (including the ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project), J.E.F.M. v. Lynch. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed the case last year, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue. However, the court’s majority opinion emphasized that it was not ruling on the merits of the claim, and in a concurring opinion, two of the three judges on the case’s panel acknowledged that “thousands of children are left to thread their way alone through the labarynthine maze of immigration laws, which, without hyperbole, ‘have been termed second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity.’” The judges continued that “given the onslaught of cases involving unaccompanied minors, there is only so much the most dedicated and judicious immigration judges...can do.” The court called on Congress and the Executive branch to take action to provide government-funded counsel to all children appearing in immigration court. The judges concluded that “to give meaning to “Equal Justice Under Law,” the tag line engraved in the U.S. Supreme Court building, to ensure the fair and effective administration of our immigration justice system, and to protect the interests of children who must struggle through that system, the problem demands action now.”
Democratic lawmakers have introduced draft legislation, entitled the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act, that would remedy this situation. Versions of the bill went nowhere in 2016; a 2017 version sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal.) and 31 co-sponsors was introduced on April 6, 2017 and has made no progress since. The website GovTrack.us states that the bill has a 3 percent chance of being enacted. In the meantime, the Chief Immigration Judge’s latest memo signals a move in the opposite direction under the present administration. Last week, the Trump administration confirmed that it is considering a policy of separating children from their parents upon arrival at the U.S. border. While the administration claims that the policy is designed to discourage Central Americans from making the dangerous journey north, it ignores the fact that those making such journey are refugees fleeing the threat of death in what has become one of the most violent and dangerous regions in the world.
The administration has not explained what alternatives exist to parents seeking to save their children from being murdered and raped by violent gangs, including MS-13, whose members Trump himself has referred to as “animals.” As reported by the New York Post, Trump stated during a speech last July in Long Island, NY of MS-13 members: “They kidnap. They extort. They rape and they rob. They prey on children. They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machete. They stab them with knives.” It would therefore seem that the current administration should be seeking to do everything in its power to allow children fleeing the above-described treatment to have their claims for asylum considered as fully and fairly as possible. Restoring the 2007 guidelines, respecting the TVPRA requirements, refusing to separate children from their parents, and providing counsel at government expense to unrepresented children would all be welcome steps towards that goal.
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.