Stung by mounting criticism of the nation’s immigration courts, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday took the extraordinary step of launching a “comprehensive review” of how the immigration system is handling the pleas of hundreds of thousands of refugees and others fighting deportation each year.
In memos delivered to every immigration judge in the country, Gonzales expressed dismay at reports of poor treatment of aliens in the immigration system, citing “intemperate or even abusive conduct.” He declared that the work of the immigration courts “must improve.” The immigration courts are under the control of the attorney general and Justice Department.
Gonzales’ call for an examination of the immigration courts has been triggered by a steady barrage of criticism from immigrant-rights advocates and federal judges whose courts have been inundated with appeals from refugees and other non-citizens who insist their immigration cases are getting short shrift.
A Mercury News series in September found non-citizens often get rapid-fire justice in the immigration courts, particularly since post-Sept. 11 reforms downsized the Board of Immigration Appeals, which is responsible for reviewing the work of the nation’s 215 immigration judges. The BIA has been deciding many cases, including life and death pleas for asylum, in perfunctory, boilerplate orders. Those decisions are being appealed—and overturned—in the federal appeals courts in unprecedented numbers, the Mercury News found.
Gonzales did not include specifics in his memos about what prompted the review, but most of the attention in the past year has focused on the lax review in the BIA and cases where hasty or mistaken decisions by overworked immigration judges were allowed to slip through the cracks. Immigration judges handled more than 300,000 cases last year, including tens of thousands where asylum seekers, many fearing torture or death if returned to their homelands, rely on the immigration courts as their last hope to stay in the United States.
Gonzales put a deputy attorney general and an associate attorney general in charge of the review. The memo didn’t specify a completion date.
The BIA’s cursory handling of immigration cases has had profound consequences, forcing many non-citizens to put their lives on hold as they wait for years until they find out whether they will be deported. In one case reviewed by the Mercury News, the 9th Circuit had to revive the asylum claims of a Guatemalan refugee whose case was rejected by the BIA without an explanation. She was granted asylum last summer after six years of uncertainty.
The 9th Circuit, which covers California and eight other Western states, has been particularly tough on the immigration courts. The Mercury News found that nearly two-thirds of the most important immigration cases in the West are so flawed when they emerge from the BIA that they have to be sent back for further review.