An attorney recently reported the following: at a Master Calendar hearing, an immigration judge advised that if on the Individual Hearing date, both the court and the ICE attorney do not believe the respondent is prima facie eligible for asylum based on the written submissions, the judge will deny asylum summarily without hearing testimony. The judge stated that other immigration judges around the country were already entering such summary judgments, in light of recent decisions of the Attorney General.
I have been telling reporters lately that no one decision or policy of the AG, the EOIR Director, or the BIA should be viewed in isolation. Rather, all are pieces in a puzzle. Back in March, in a very unusual decision, Jeff Sessions certified to himself a four-year-old BIA precedent decision while it was administratively closed (and therefore off-calendar) at the immigration judge level, and then vacated the decision for the most convoluted of reasons. What jumped out at me was the fact that the decision, Matter of E-F-H-L-, had held that all asylum applicants had the right to a full hearing on their application without first having to establish prima facie eligibility for such relief. It was pretty clear that Sessions wanted this requirement eliminated.
Let’s look at the timeline of recent developments. On January 4 of this year, Sessions certified to himself the case of Matter of Castro-Tum, in which he asked whether immigration judges and the BIA should continue to have the right to administratively close cases, a useful and common docket management tool. On January 19, the BIA published its decision in Matter of W-Y-C- & H-O-B-, in which it required asylum applicants to clearly delineate their claimed particular social group before the immigration judge (an extremely complicated task beyond the ability of most unrepresented applicants), and stated that the BIA will not consider reformulations of the social group on appeal. The decision was written by Board Member Garry Malphrus, a hard-line Republican who was a participant in the “Brooks Brother Riot” that disrupted the Florida ballot recount following the 2000 Presidential election.
On March 5, Sessions vacated Matter of E-F-H-L-. Two days later, on March 7, Sessions certified to himself an immigration judge’s decision in Matter of A-B-, engaging in procedural irregularity in taking the case from the BIA before it could rule on the matter, and then completely transforming the issues presented in the case, suddenly challenging whether anyone fearing private criminal actors could qualify for asylum.
On March 22, Sessions certified to himself Matter of L-A-B-R- et al., to determine under what circumstances immigration judges may grant continuances to respondents in removal proceedings. Although this decision is still pending, immigration judges are already having to defend their decisions to grant continuances to their supervisors at the instigation of the EOIR Director’s Office, which is tracking all IJ continuances.
On March 30, EOIR issued a memo stating that immigration judges would be subjected to performance metrics, or quotas, requiring them to complete 700 cases per year, 95 percent at the first scheduled individual hearing, and further requiring that no more than 15 percent of their decisions be remanded. On May 17, Sessions decided Castro-Tum in the negative, stripping judges of the ability to manage their own dockets by administratively closing worthy cases.
On May 31, Castro-Tum’s case was on the Master Calendar of Immigration Judge Steven Morley. Instead of ordering Castro-Tum deported in absentia that day, the judge continued the proceedings to allow an interested attorney to brief him on the issue of whether Castro-Tum received proper notice of the hearing. Soon thereafter, the case was removed from Judge Morley’s docket and reassigned to a management-level immigration judge who is far less likely to exercise such judicial independence.
On June 11, Sessions decided Matter of A-B-, vacating the BIA’s 2014 decision recognizing the ability of victims of domestic violence to qualify for asylum as members of a particular social group. In that decision, Sessions included headnote 4: “If an asylum application is fatally flawed in one respect, an immigration judge or the Board need not examine the remaining elements of the asylum claim.” The case was intentionally issued on the first day of the Immigration Judges training conference, at which the need to complete more cases in less time was a repeatedly emphasized.
So in summary, within the past few months, the immigration judges have been warned that their livelihood will depend on their completing large numbers of cases, without the ability to grant continuances or administratively close cases. They have had the need to hold a full asylum hearing stripped away, while at the same time, having pointed out to them several ways to quickly dispose of an asylum claim that until weeks ago, would have been clearly grantable under settled case law.
So where does all this leave the individual judges? There has been much discussion lately of EOIR’s improper politicized hirings of immigration judges. I feel that the above developments have created something of a Rorschach test for determining an immigration judge’s ideology.
The judges that conclude from the above the best practice is to summarily deny asylum without testimony are exactly the type of judges the present administration wants on the bench. They can find a “fatal flaw” in the claim - either in the formulation (or lack thereof) of the particular social group, or in the lack of preliminary documentation as to the persecutor’s motive, the government’s inability to protect, or the unreasonableness of internal relocation, and simply deny the right to a hearing. It should be noted that these issues are often resolved by the detailed testimony offered at a full merits hearing, which is the purpose of holding such hearings in the first place.
On the other hand, more thoughtful, liberal judges will find that in light of the above developments, they must afford more time for asylum claims based on domestic violence, gang threats, or other claims involving non-governmental actors. They will conference these cases, and hear detailed testimony from the respondent, country experts, and other witnesses on the particular points raised by Sessions in Matter of A-B-. They may consider alternative theories of these cases based on political opinion or religion. They are likely to take the time to craft thoughtful, detailed decisions. And in doing so, they will find it extremely difficult to meet the completion quotas set out by the agency with Sessions’ blessing. They may also have their decisions remanded by the conservative BIA, whose leadership is particularly fearful of angering its superiors in light of the 2003 purge of liberal BIA members by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The removal of Castro-Tum’s case from the docket of Judge Morley is clearly a warning that the agency does not wish for judges to behave as independent and impartial adjudicators, but rather to act in lockstep with the agency’s enforcement agenda.
There is another very significant issue: most asylum claims also apply for protection under Article III of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Unlike asylum, “CAT” relief is mandatory, and as it does not require a nexus to a protected ground, it is unaffected by the AG’s holding in A-B-. So won’t those judges pondering summary dismissal still have to hold full hearings on CAT protection? It would seem that a refusal to hold a full CAT hearing would result in a remand, if not from the BIA, than at the circuit court level.
Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.