Lawyers slam 'Wild West' atmosphere in Texas immigration court

Say judges foster 'culture of hostility'

By PHILLIP CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
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(CNN) - Judges at an immigration court in El Paso, Texas, are undermining due process, making inappropriate comments and fostering a "culture of hostility" toward immigrants, according to a new complaint.

The administrative complaint, sent to the Justice Department on Wednesday and obtained by CNN, slams a number of allegedly recurring practices at the El Paso Service Processing Center court, which hears cases of immigrants detained at several locations near the border.

"El Paso feels like the Wild West in terms of the immigration system," said Kathryn Shepherd, national advocacy counsel for the American Immigration Council's Immigration Justice Campaign and one of the complaint's authors. "There's so little oversight. No one is talking about how bad it is."

The complaint comes at a time of mounting criticism of the Justice Department-run courts that decide whether individual immigrants should be deported. And it comes as officials warn the number of cases those courts are tasked with handling is rapidly increasing with an influx of more undocumented immigrants crossing the border.

Among the allegations:

• Judges at the El Paso Service Processing Center court have "notably high rates of denial," the complaint says, noting that the court granted less than 4% of asylum applications heard there between fiscal year 2013 and fiscal year 2017. Nationally, 35% of asylum cases in court are granted, according to the latest data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

• The complaint accuses judges in the court of making inappropriate comments that "undermine confidence in their impartiality" and are part of "a culture of hostility and contempt towards immigrants who appear" at the court. While hearing one case, a judge, according to the complaint, described the court as "the bye-bye place," telling a lawyer, "You know your client is going bye-bye, right?" Another judge allegedly told court observers that "there's really nothing going on right now in Latin America" that would provide grounds for asylum.

• Rules limiting evidence that can be presented at this court strip away due process, the complaint says. One judge's standing order, for example, limits the length of exhibits that can be submitted to 100 pages. "This order is particularly harmful for individuals seeking protection whose cases are more complex or where country conditions are at issue," the complaint says.

The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees US immigration courts, declined to comment on the allegations. Spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly confirmed that the office received the complaint letter on Wednesday.

An overwhelmed system

The allegations come amid mounting criticism of US immigration courts.

There are more than 60 immigration courts in the United States, and about 400 judges presiding over them. Immigration judges are hired directly by the attorney general and are employees of the Justice Department. They're required to be US citizens, to have law degrees, to be active and licensed members of the bar and to have at least seven years of post-bar experience with trials or hearings, among other qualifications.

Prosecutors in immigration courts are employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the overall administration of the courts is the Justice Department's responsibility.

Both immigrant rights advocates and immigration hard-liners agree the court system is struggling under a crush of cases -- but they diverge widely in their proposals for fixing it.

More than 850,000 cases are pending in US immigration courts, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. And in a report released last month, the American Bar Association said the courts are "irredeemably dysfunctional and on the brink of collapse."

The Trump administration has moved to hire more judges and to pressure them to finish cases more quickly, accusing immigrants and the lawyers who represent them of gaming the system and overloading it with frivolous cases.

President Donald Trump has also repeatedly questioned the need for an immigration court system to begin with. "We have to get rid of judges," Trump said Tuesday in the Oval Office, later explaining that he no longer wants to catch people trying to cross the southern border illegally and "bring them to a court."

Advocates say the existing system denies due process and harms vulnerable people who have legitimate claims to remain in the United States but face an overwhelming number of obstacles to make their case. They've argued a major overhaul is necessary, proposing the creation of an independent court system that's not part of the Justice Department.

In recent congressional testimony, Executive Office for Immigration Review Director James McHenry said his department had increased its number of case completions for the third consecutive year. And he said that every day, the office decides immigration cases "by fairly, expeditiously and uniformly interpreting and administering the nation's immigration laws."

'The worst court in the country'

Lawyers argue the El Paso Service Processing Center facility is both a window into wider problems of the immigration system and a particularly egregious example.

"Immigration courts across the nation are suffering from many of the issues identified here," the complaint alleges, "including the use of problematic standing orders, reports of inappropriate conduct from (immigration judges), and highly disparate grant rates which suggest that outcomes may turn on which court or judge is deciding the case rather than established principles and rules of law."

But one reason advocates focused this complaint on this El Paso court, the American Immigration Council's Shepherd said, was that it had the lowest asylum grant rate in the nation, based on statistics compiled from Justice Department reports over a five-year period.

Those figures, from annual fiscal year reports from 2013-2017, show the percentage of cases granted in the El Paso court has fluctuated in recent years, decreasing slightly from 2014-2016 and increasing slightly from 2016-2017. But for years, the figure has hovered at or under 5% -- significantly below the national rate.

"If you look at the numbers, it's the worst court in the country. But we wanted to understand really why that was the case," she said. "What about El Paso, and what about how the judges conduct business in the court, makes it so hard to prevail?"

After researching that question and outlining their findings in the complaint, with the help of court observers and lawyers who regularly practice in the court, now Shepherd says they're calling for the Justice Department to conduct its own investigation into the El Paso Service Processing Center court and other courts with similar problems.

Suggestions for improvement

An administrative complaint is a step in a formal grievance process used to bring issues to officials' attention, Shepherd said, but does not trigger legal proceedings.

The complaint recommends a series of corrective measures, including providing more training on appropriate conduct for judges and requiring the Executive Office for Immigration Review to post publicly online any standing orders individual judges have issued.

No matter how officials respond, Shepherd said she hopes the complaint will be a jumping-off point for further research into how the court's practices have affected people who were ordered deported there.

"It's pretty overwhelming, actually," she said, "if you think about the thousands of people who have passed through this immigration court and haven't really had a chance to fight their case in a meaningful way."

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