Photo: U.S. Immigration System Making Changes, But Are They Enough?
As many immigrants have learned, the court process is very slow. Between files being lost, background checks being delayed, overcrowded dockets, and overloaded judges, it is no wonder those seeking asylum or to become citizens often feel so hopeless. The good news is that changes are being made, and slowly but surely things seem to be on track to better futures for many.
With the push of lawyers like Judy London and Laura Wytsma of Los Angeles, as well as other members of the American Bar Association, Congress is starting to make changes to a very flawed system.
“So many things are wrong, it’s hard to know where to start,” said London.
So far 38 judges have been added, as well as 90 additional court workers, and they will set out to tackle the nearly 268,000 backlogged cases reported by the research group Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
However, though it is a step in the right direction, 38 is far from the 100 judges the American Bar Association called for in a study commissioned last year.
“It’s a very important first step and we hope they’ll continue to follow through on the massive crisis that we face,” said the head of the union representing the judges, Dana Leigh Marks.
Unfortunately, the addition of any more judges seems unlikely as the a temporary hiring freeze is now in effect. This is detrimental as, on average, in 2009, each judge had more than 1,500 cases each, resulting in about nine trials a day, and that is frightening since some are life-and-death cases.
“The consequences for the people in court are very, very high,” Marks told the Associated Press. “They may fear persecution in their homeland. That’s a valid defense to deportation, even if they are in the United States illegally. ... If we’re wrong, it’s almost equivalent to sentencing someone to death.”
London and Wytsma are also looking to have the court become its own institution – like bankruptcy court – and remove it from the Department of Justice.
“There are too many other priorities for the federal government ... it’s so far down the totem pole,” said Wytsma, who was once a government immigration lawyer. “There are no politicians accountable to this constituency (the immigrants). They are not wealthy. They have no voting power. They have none of the things that put any pressures on the powers that be to make change. I’m not optimistic at all.”
Karen Grisez, a Washington lawyer who heads the ABA’s committee on immigration agrees, saying, “It’s really about the independence of the judges. Right now, the attorney general can hire and fire the immigration judges. ... Judges can be reassigned or disciplined if they’re perceived as too lenient or have too many continuances.”
Though there is still a substantial amount of work to be done, strides appear to be taken, and those like London, Wytsma, and Grisez are not letting up.