Arizona Republic reporters explain the difference between seeking asylum at the border and attempting to immigrate illegally.
Carly Henry, The Republic | azcentral.com
Two longtime Phoenix immigration court judges are retiring this week, just as quotas kick in as part of the Trump administration effort to clear huge case backlogs by accelerating deportations.
The retiring judges are Wendell Hollis and John Richardson, who served on the bench for nearly 30 years, making him the most senior member among the five immigration judges in the Phoenix immigration court.
In a court system stacked with former immigration prosecutors, Richardson was known for his fairness, independence and humanity in deciding immigration cases, which can carry life-or-death consequences for people ordered to deport to countries where their lives are in danger.
Richardson received national attention in 2005 when he threw out a deportation case against the Wilson Four, a group of undocumented students from Wilson Charter High School brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents when they were young.
Hollis, a former INS prosecutor, was appointed an immigration judge in 2003 and was regarded by immigration lawyers as a tough but fair judge.
“They will be sorely missed. Both Judge Richardson and Judge Hollis have been hallmarks of the Phoenix immigration court … particularly Richardson who has been on the court for 28 years, he’s a landmark, ” said Delia Salvatierra, a Phoenix immigration attorney. “Both judges were just, both judges were fair, they understood the complexities of immigration law and the complexities of the human aspects of enforcement of immigration laws and they took their authority to exercise discretion very seriously.”
There is no comprehensive study that analyzes the costs of deportation, and experts say there are too many variables to consider.
Session calls for faster deportations
They leave at a time when immigration judges feel like their discretion is under attack.
Although both judges are of retirement age — Hollis is 65, Richardson is 75 — court observers have noted the timing of their departures, coming as immigration judges have clashed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his efforts to clear backlogs and speed deportations by imposing quotas, restricting the discretion of immigration judges to continue or terminate deportation cases, and limiting their ability to grant asylum to victims of gang violence or domestic abuse.
Under the Trump administration, how immigration judges are evaluated has shifted, said Evelyn Cruz, director of Arizona State University’s Immigration Law and Policy Clinic. “The new new test is how quickly can you get rid of that body, basically, how quickly can this case be closed,” Cruz said.
Unlike federal judges, immigration judges are employees of the Department of Justice. They wield enormous power, serving as judge and jury in deciding whether a person should be deported, or meets the legal criteria to remain in the U.S., Cruz said.
But Sessions has sought to limit the leeway immigration judges have in making those determinations, she said.
In April, the Justice Department informed immigration judges that evaluation of their performance would include how quickly they close cases. The backlog through June of this year had grown to more than 732,000 cases, up nearly 300 percent since 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts.
In August, the union representing immigration judges filed a formal grievance against the Justice Department, accusing Sessions of trying to exert too much influence over immigration judges. The complaint by the National Association of Immigration Judges said Sessions had pulled more than 80 cases from the docket of an immigration judge in Philadelphia after he closed the case of a Guatemalan who entered the U.S. illegally in 2014 when he was 17.
Sessions used the case as the basis to order that immigration judges no longer had the power to (administratively) close most cases, essentially bringing deportation proceedings to an end, and allowing immigrants to remain in the U.S. despite not having legal status.
Over the past decade, immigration judges had closed more than 350,000 cases, according to USA TODAY. The Obama administration used the practice to put many cases on hold so that immigration judges could focus on deportation cases involving immigrants with criminal records.
Retirements on the rise?
Richardson and Hollis are retiring at the end of the federal fiscal year, on Sept. 30. The new quotas, which reportedly ask immigration judges to close 700 cases a year—on average three a day—officially kick in with the start of the new fiscal year, on Oct. 1.
Immigration attorneys say nationally a number of immigration judges have retired or left out of frustration as Sessions has sought to exert more control over immigration courts.
Gail Montenegro, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, would not provide statistics on the number of judges retiring at the end of this fiscal year, saying the agency “does not discuss attrition prior to its occurrence.”
Forty-four new immigration judges were to be sworn in on Friday, bringing the total number to 395 nationwide, she said.
Under Sessions, the Department of Justice is rapidly hiring more immigration judges, while at the same time reducing the hiring process from two years to 10 months, and as little as two months. EOIR is authorized for a total of 484 positions, Montenegro said.
There were 7,662 cases pending in the Phoenix immigration court as of the end of August, down 60 percent from a high of 12,216 in fiscal year 2013, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
It was unclear whether any of the newly hired immigration judges would be assigned to fill the positions left by Richardson and Hollis.
“EOIR constantly monitors its caseload nationwide and shifts resources to meet needs in the most efficient manner possible,” Montenegro said.
‘What judge does that?’
Several immigration lawyers expressed concern that the Phoenix immigration court is losing two experienced and well-regarded immigration judges when pressure to clear backlogs and speed deportations could undermine the due process rights of immigrants.
They particularly lamented the loss of Richardson.
Several years ago when ICE agents began showing up at the Phoenix immigration court to arrest people, Richardson put a stop to it, recalled Judy Flanagan, a Phoenix immigration lawyer for 20 years.
In December 2002, Richardson was so incensed when three top officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials failed to appear in court for an asylum hearing, he cited them for contempt.
“What judge does that?” Flanagan said. “For most immigration attorneys there was a sense the playing field was much more even when you were in front of Judge Richardson. We didn’t always get what we wanted from him, but it was more often than in front of other judges. It was a sense of fairness.”
Flanagan said Richardson demonstrated that fairness in 2005 when he tossed out the deportation case against the Wilson Four.
Flanagan, who represented the Wilson Four, made the then-rare argument that U.S. border officials had violated the students’ Constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fifth amendments by targeting them based on their ethnicity. At the time, the students were among a group of Latino students competing in a solar boat competition in New York State when they made a side trip with their teacher to Niagara Falls. While still on the U.S. side, they were questioned about their citizenship by U.S. border officers after asking if they could cross over into Canada and use their school IDs to cross back into the U.S.
Richardson agreed with Flanagan’s argument and tossed out the case.
Afterward, Richardson was branded an activist judge by critics on conservative talk radio. But he was vindicated when his ruling was upheld by a federal immigration appeals board after Immigration and Customs Enforcement appealed.
Leo Jeancarlo DeLeon, 6, is escorted from a van to be reunited with his mother, Lourdes Marianela DeLeon, in Guatemala on Aug. 7, 2018.
Nick Oza, The Republic | azcentral.com
‘Welcome to the United States’
The Wilson Four case landed in his courtroom because Richardson oversaw the juvenile docket, which often involves some of the most delicate and difficult asylum cases of children who unaccompanied by parents had fled horrific violence in their home countries seeking refuge in the U.S.
When the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. began rising in the 1990s, Richardson was instrumental in creating a program to provide pro-bono lawyers to represent undocumented children, who under the law are not entitled to lawyers at government expense.
In 1996, after Richardson saw that children in detention were showing up for hearings without legal representation, he sent a memo to the State Bar Association pleading, “Please help the children!!!”
The Bar Association began providing lawyers to represent juveniles in immigration court, which led to the creation of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a non-profit organization that provides legal assistance to detained immigrants and children in Arizona.
“Anyone who ever dealt with (immigration cases involving) juvenile or unaccompanied minors knows Judge Richardson would go way beyond what was required to make sure they were taken care of,” said Emilia Bañuelos, a Phoenix immigration attorney for 25 years.
In cases where immigrants, often with deportation in the balance, won their cases and were granted legal permanent status, known as green cards, several immigration lawyers recalled that Richardson would congratulate each one by getting off the bench, shaking hands and saying, “Welcome to the United States.”
“No other immigration judge has ever done anything like that. There was that sense of humanity, of graciousness,” Flanagan said. “It was a lovely gesture. I always thought it was great and my clients thought it was amazing. It’s just a symbol of what kind of person he is.”
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