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Legal organizations call on Congress for independent immigration court



Four legal organizations sent a letter to Congress on Thursday, urging them to establish an immigration court system independent from the Justice Department.

The letter was co-signed by presidents of the American Bar Association (ABA), American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Federal Bar Association (FBA), and the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), which is the first time these four organizations joined together to call for Congressional action, according to a press release.

“Our current immigration court system cannot meet the standards which justice demands,” the letter stated.

With a “crisis-level” backlog of nearly 900,000 cases, the letter states that “policies implemented to reduce the backlog have severely undermined the integrity of the immigration court system,” thus creating a greater need for an independent court system.

“The backlog of cases is growing and has grown tremendously in just the past few years, so that is creating a sense of real urgency that the system is in crisis,” Greg Chen, Director of Government Relations for AILA, said in a press call. “What exacerbates that is that the Department of Justice has implemented policies that are making it more difficult for the courts to operate efficiently and are increasing that backlog, so those factors are coming together the confluence of pressure that I believe is being felt more seriously on the Hill than it has in past years.”

The Justice Department recently informed immigration judges that it would reduce the number of in-person translators at initial immigration court hearings and replace them with videos informing migrants of their rights and court procedure, the San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this month.

Read more: The American Bar Association is sounding the alarm that US immigration courts are ‘on the brink of collapse’

These videos are intended primarily for “master calendar” hearings, which typically lasts 10 to 15 minutes. It was proposed as a cost-saving solution to immigration judges hearing several cases at once to catch up with the back-log.

“Court funds should be used to to ensure the court operates efficiently and fairly,” Denise Noonan Slavin, former immigration judge and NAIJ president emerita, said in the press call. “But instead, they’re used based on political priorities.”

Wendy Wayne, chair of the ABA’s Commission on Immigration, said she believes that immigration courts issue “life-altering decisions” that deprive migrants of their freedoms, separate families at the border and those already living in the US, and could be a matter of “life or death” to those seeking asylum.

“Yet, the system lacks the basic structural and procedural safeguards that we take for granted in other areas of our justice system,” Wayne said in a press call.

The Department of Justice declined to comment.

According to Elizabeth Stevens, chair of the Federal Bar Association’s Immigration Laws Section, establishing an independent immigration court system is not a new initiative in Congress.

“There were bills introduced from 1982 through 1999 to create an independent Article One court system, … but [they] never got very far in the congressional lawmaking stew,” Stevens said.

While efforts have been made to solve the structural issues that plague the immigration court system, Slavin said that it will take more than money to fix it.

“I think Congress has come to the realization that throwing money at the court is not working,” Slavin said. “We’re almost up to a million cases at this point, and the backlog will not be alleviated if the courts will not be fixed.”

Read the full letter here:

American Immigration Lawyers Association
American Immigration Lawyers Association

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