(Joshua Paladino, Liberty Headlines) A Government Accountability Office study from June 1 revealed that backlogs in immigration courts doubled between 2005 and 2015. The study identified the main cause as a decline in cases completed per year.
The Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, under the House Judiciary Committee, held a hearing on Wednesday to diagnose the problem and present solutions for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
EOIR is the country’s immigration court. It handles immigration-related decisions, like deportation hearings. It’s not exactly a court, though, nor is it part of the judicial branch. EOIR is an administrative office that falls under the jurisdiction of an executive agency, the Department of Justice (DOJ). This leaves it liable to political influence.
Subcommittee Chairman Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) began by describing the Obama administration’s influence on immigration courts.
“Of utmost concern to this subcommittee is the current backlog of pending cases. I am appalled, but really not surprised, that the previous administration created conditions that ultimately resulted in a backlog of almost 630,000 pending cases nationwide,” Labrador said. “This number represents a 22 percent increase in fiscal year 2017 and is simply unacceptable.”
Labrador said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the DOJ colluded to prioritize the administration’s policies. The DOJ supported policies such as Deferred Action for Childhood Applicants (DACA) and chain migration. Even though many considered deferred action policies as outside the president’s power, the administration’s authority over the DOJ forced a legal victory for it.
“The policies and practices instituted during the Obama administration served a decidedly political agenda throughout the federal government and EOIR was not spared,” Labrador said. “It is against this backdrop that the incoming leadership must begin to restore this agency and where necessary needs to overhaul it.”
Acting Director of EOIR James McHenry testified about his plans to reform the administrative office.
“First, we are increasing our adjudicatory by hiring more immigration judges. We have hired 61 new judges since January 1 and we are in the process of filling up to 42 additional positions using a new streamlined hiring process announced by the Attorney General earlier this year,” he said.
The new process allows for temporary appointments while new judges undergo “full background investigations.” McHenry estimates the office will hire judges in six months or less, whereas the current process takes up to two years, according to the Government Accountability Office.
“Second, we are maximizing our existing adjudicatory capacity by addressing both docket inefficiencies and unused courtroom capacity,” McHenry said.
Another policy adoption are “no dark courtrooms,” which means that EOIR uses all available space all the time, and a practice of hiring retired immigration judges to work part-time until more full-time judges become available.
“Third, we are transforming EOIR’s institutional culture and improving its infrastructure by focusing on reorienting the agency toward its core mission of adjudicating cases and to switch from a paper-based to an electronic-based system,” McHenry said. “We are committed to piloting an electronic filing system in 2018.”
McHenry said EOIR is also reviewing its institutional regulations to find more efficient ways to operate. He added that EOIR is working to ensure that influxes of immigration cases do not derail its reforms.
Ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers (D-Michigan) used the hearing as an opportunity to criticize President Trump.
“He’s attacked the judiciary, issued an unprecedented pardon to a sheriff (Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona) convicted of criminal contempt of court, and fired the FBI Director (James Comey) during an ongoing investigation by that agency into his own campaign,” Conyers said. “Unfortunately, EOIR has not escaped this broad erosion of rule of law principles based on the administration’s policies that threaten judicial independence, due process, and fundamental fairness within our immigration courts.”
EOIR is not an independent court, however. It will remain subject to political considerations as long as it exists as an executive agency.