Overworked and underfunded immigration court system can’t do the job

Gavel - Law concept

Almost half a million immigration cases wait to be heard in immigration courts. The number of pending cases has doubled in six years and keeps growing. Overburdened judges handle about 1,400 cases each year, far more than any other administrative judges. In each case a person, a family, a mother or father or sister or brother, waits for a day in court. 

A report from Syracuse University describes the length of the wait for a hearing.

“[T]he average wait time for an individual in the Immigration Court’s pending cases list has also reached an all-time high of 635 calendar days. But this average wait time only measures how long these individuals have already been waiting, not how much longer they will have to wait before their cases are resolved.

“The severity of the rapidly growing crisis was revealed last January, when the court issued thousands of letters notifying individuals that their cases would be delayed for nearly five years more — until November 29, 2019.”

In Minnesota, the report said, the average wait time was 638 days, with 1,092 more days until the probable hearing date.

A Los Angeles Times op/ed identified the problem: too few judges. Everybody who knows anything about the system knows more judges are needed. But Congress refuses to budget for them.

“There is a solution: Money. Estimates range from needing 100 to 225 additional judges to clear the current cases and keep up with the anticipated future caseload. So how does that happen? Congress budgets for it. Except it refuses to.

“This is where Congress’ cynical approach to immigration enters the spotlight. The Republicans in Congress bray about Obama’s immigration policies and decry the high numbers of folks here in the country without permission. But they refuse to look at the solution that they control: properly budgeting the court system that determines who has a legally recognized right to stay, and who is eligible for deportation.”

Judges are not the only people needed to make the immigration courts work. More than 85 percent of immigration cases need interpreters, but the Department of Justice is trying to slash the pay for interpreters, and that will mean more trouble for the already over-burdened courts.

Tony Rosado is a professional interpreter. He says he does not work in immigration courts because even the old rates were unconscionably low. But now, Rosado reports in his blog:

“For several weeks I have been contacted by many of our interpreter friends and colleagues. They have talked to me in person, over the phone, by text, by email, and through social media. The message was the same: interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States are under siege.  They explained how the contractor who will provide interpreting services at all U.S. immigration courthouses had contacted them to offer unprecedented low fees and horrifying working conditions to those who wanted to continue to interpret in these settings.”

BuzzFeed sums up the problem: without enough interpreters, immigration courts can’t function and immigrants can’t get a fair hearing. The extensive BuzzFeed article offers an example of the crucial role played by interpreters:

“Lichter recalled a time when a woman was testifying about the six men who gang raped her. The woman recounted how one of the men standing behind her said, ‘Vamos a hacerla picadillo,’ which translates roughly to ‘Let’s beat her to a pulp.’ The interpreter got it wrong, Lichter said, by rendering a literal translation of the Spanish word picadillo as ‘ground beef.’

“The difference may seem subtle, Lichter said, but it can be crucial in determining whether, from the judge’s perspective, an asylum seeker’s story appears to come truly from the heart or falls flat because it doesn’t make sense.”

Lawyers also play an essential role, representing people in hugely complex immigration proceedings. Every day, immigration judges decide cases that are literally a matter of life and death. Many of the cases now pending in immigration courts involve children who have fled violence in Honduras and El Salvador over the past several years.

According to PBS NewsHour, 19,000 immigrants under 21 have filed requests to stay in the United States this year, and 62 percent are not represented by lawyers. Immigration cases, especially refugee cases, are incredibly complex. The ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit saying that these children need to be represented by lawyers as they seek asylum here. PBS reports:

“Seventy-three percent of immigrants under 21 with lawyers are allowed to stay in the U.S. That’s five times higher than the 15 percent of children without lawyers who are allowed to stay.”

When someone is represented by a lawyer, their case gets more careful consideration. That takes longer, increasing the average length of immigration court cases from 16 months for people who are not represented by lawyers to 30 months for those who are.

Judges, lawyers, interpreters — they are all essential to immigration courts. Without adequate funding, the entire system fails.

Read more:

By: Guest blogger Mary Turck from her blog, “News Day.”

First person executed this year in the U.S.: a Vietnam Veteran

Vietnam Vet RGBAn op-ed published in USA Today written by three retired generals calls attention to the plight of veterans on death row. The generals call for systemic review of the status of these veterans and urge decision-makers in capital cases to seriously consider the mental health effects of service-related PTSD in determining whether to pursue or to impose the death penalty against military veterans.

Brigadiers General (Ret.) James P. Cullen, David R. Irvine, and Stephen N. Xenakis write that “[c]ountless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine” but defense attorneys in capital cases “are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present” this evidence and prosecutors and judges often treat it dismissively. They say that, “at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field.”

“Vets suffering from PTSD need our help

“The first person executed in the United States this year, Andrew Brannan, was a Vietnam veteran who had been granted 100% disability because of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other problems stemming from his military service. Approximately 300 other veterans remain on death row and face execution. As retired Army general officers, lawyers and a psychiatrist, these facts concern us greatly, and they should disturb many other Americans, as well.

“On Veterans Day, we honor those who bravely served their country and offer our helping hand to assist those who have returned from war with wounds and physical disabilities. Countless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine. They deserve our thanks. But some are left behind.

“Our hospitals and therapists have performed wonders in assisting wounded veterans who lost limbs. A prosthetic is not the same as the original, but with the courage of service-members, combined with an understanding and supportive community, we are making progress. We wish the same could be said for our veterans who come back with deep brain and mental wounds. Their requests for understanding and compassion are too often dismissed.

“A new report from the Death Penalty Information Center is a wake-up call for an issue that few have focused on. Even as the use of capital punishment is declining, veterans suffering with PTSD and other service-related problems languish on death rows across the country.

“Brannan was executed in Georgia this year for one irrational act of violence that occurred 17 years ago. He killed a police officer who had stopped him for speeding. That is a terrible crime, but as the Veterans Administration had determined, Brannan was mentally disabled with deep scars from his combat in Vietnam.

“James Davis is also a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. He belatedly received his Purple Heart medal on death row in North Carolina, thanks to the work of a fellow veteran and therapist and a pastor, Jim Johnson, who visited Davis. When Johnson pinned the medal on him, Davis saluted proudly, before retreating back into the darkness of his mental problems. He could still be executed today for the murders he committed in 1995, and he has all but given up his appeals.

“John Thuesen is on death row in Texas — a veteran of the Iraq conflict. His PTSD was not properly diagnosed or treated, and his lawyers did not do enough to explain his condition to the jury that convicted him of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Texas executes far more people than any other state in the country, so there is a real concern that his current appeal could be denied.

“PTSD is not as obvious as a missing limb, but it can be deeply debilitating. The trauma from combat can simmer under the surface for years, then erupt in violence, often against family members. It can be triggered by anything that jars a memory of a time when a person was under violent attack, demanding immediate and forceful reaction. Years later, the previous danger is no longer present, but the memory may set off a similar reaction, with deadly consequences. PTSD can be treated, but in one study only about half of the veterans who needed treatment received it.

“In a criminal sentencing hearing, PTSD should be a strong mitigating factor. It’s not an excuse or a demand for acquittal. However, the very symptoms that define PTSD can be frightening to a jury if not carefully explained by a mental health expert familiar with the illness. Defense attorneys are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present this kind of evidence; prosecutors or judges might dismiss it because others with similar combat experiences did not murder anyone. Perhaps some of the blame should be more broadly shared because we sometimes choose to look away when a veteran’s scars are not the kind that we know how to cope with.

“We are not arguing here about the morality or the utility of the death penalty. But at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field.

“Decision-makers — jurors, judges and governors — should be informed that such information is a valid reason to spare a defendant from capital punishment. There are alternatives, such as life in prison without parole.

“We should begin by determining the exact scope of this problem: Who are the veterans on death row? How could their military experience have affected their commission of a crime? How well were their disabilities investigated and presented in court? And what should be done when the system fails them?

“Veterans facing the death penalty deserve this assistance.”

This op-ed published today, November 11, 2015, in USA Today was written by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) James P. Cullen, USA, is a former judge for the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) David R. Irvine, USA, is a former Deputy Commander of the 96th U.S. Army Reserve Command. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Stephen N. Xenakis, USA, M.D. is an adjunct clinical professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.