It’s an “alternate legal universe.” No bailiffs, no court reporters, no Miranda rights, no witnesses — and it’s happening everyday on American soil.
Immigration courts so full there are more than 375,000 cases pending on the dockets of only 227 judges.
“We look like the guy behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz,” Dana Marks, a federal judge and the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told a gathering at the National Press Club today.
“Most members of the public don’t have a clue about the realities of our world,” she said. “Since there’s not statute of limitations in immigration court the convictions which cause people to come before us in our courtroom can be decades old.”
Marks called immigration courts the “forgotten step child within the Department of Justice,” receiving just 1.7 percent of the $18 billion given to immigration enforcement annually.
“Because we have been left to the mercy of the political winds which constantly buffet immigration issues, we have been resource starved for decades,” she said.
There is a solution, she says, but it would not be quick or cheap–and it would require an act of Congress.
“To be efficient, and operate economically, to guarantee fairness, our immigration courts need to be independent, both from the prosecutors and from the respondents who come before us,” Marks said.
One issue Marks and Denise Noonan Slavin, a Miami-based judge who is the union’s executive vice president, highlighted was the immigration judge’s dual role as judges–or unbiased arbitrators, and employees within the Department of Justice, which often leads to blurred lines.
“The recent docketing changes brought about by the southwest border surge are another example of how we are serving two masters and not necessary serving the public in the most efficient way,” Slavin said. “There is no other court that would turn the docket on its head at the request of one party. But the immigration court is flipping the docket by moving cases of newly arrived children to the front of the docket at the demand of the department of homeland security.”
Slavin says this flip doesn’t make the most sense, especially when a judge could be deciding the fate of a child, whose parent’s own case may have been already on the docket and now pushed further down.
The administration requested judges to hear children’s cases with 21 days of apprehension following the influx of more than 60,000 children flooding the border since October 2013–a 100 percent increase since last year. The administration has said they expect to return the majority of the Central American unaccompanied children.
“In the 27 years I’ve been an immigration judge never been told what the ultimate outcome should be in a case, however there are subtle pressures when you now you are supposed to do the case as quickly as possible,” Marks said. “There is a pressure to do things more quickly and that is more difficult.”
Marks adds that she and her colleagues have not seen an impact from President Obama’s initiative to add more judges and lawyers to the cases of unaccompanied minors.