Op-ed: Immigration courts need reform, too

An op-ed published yesterday in the LA times details an oft-forgotten component of immigration: the nation’s overburdened immigration courts. An accused person’s right to a fair hearing is a cornerstone of American justice. But that right has been increasingly undermined in the nation’s overburdened immigration courts, which have been starved of resources and stretched far too thin in recent years.

There are too few judges, and each is required to handle a crushing caseload. In Los Angeles County, for example, a typical immigration judge had more than 1,600 proceedings on his docket last year. By comparison, judges in federal court in Los Angeles, who are also considered by some to be overburdened, each handled an average of 446 cases.

And the backlog is growing. Consider the Los Angeles immigration court, the busiest in the nation. Since 2008, overall caseloads have increased from 38,000 to 52,000, yet the number of judges has grown from 25 in 2008 to just 31 today.

A recent report by the Justice Department‘s inspector general found that the strain on the courts has led to delays and inefficiencies that all too often force defendants to wait months, and sometimes years, before being allowed to make their cases to a judge. These defendants are all fighting deportation, and they include people seeking political asylum as well as legal residents convicted of misdemeanors. Many who are forced to endure long delays have never been convicted of a crime.

At best, the courts are forced to dispense assembly-line justice — if these proceedings can be called justice at all. U.S. 7th Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner, a Ronald Reagan appointee, has looked at what happens in immigration courts and concluded that the proceedings have “fallen below the minimum standards of legal justice.” For an asylum-seeking dissident who is forcibly returned to a country where he has opposed a ruling regime, that lack of justice can also be dangerous.

In the aftermath of last week’s election, Congress has made noises about possibly revisiting the long-stalled issue of comprehensive immigration reform. If and when it does so — and we hope that it will in the near future — it should also reform the immigration courts. For starters, it could adopt recommendations such as those put forward by the American Bar Assn. two years ago to make the court system independent of the Justice Department and to increase funding. Given how much is at stake when a person faces deportation, nothing less than a fair hearing will do.

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