Complaints Prompt Government Review of Immigration Courts

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The Justice Department is reviewing immigration courts after repeated complaints that some judges are rude or incompetent. Immigration judges say there are not enough of them, and they are overworked.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Justice Department is reviewing the nation's immigration courts. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ordered the review last month, after mounting reports that judges are rude or dismissive when illegal immigrants come before them. In a letter to immigration judges, Gonzales said some of them could be called, quote, "intemperate, or even abusive."

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

The accusations roiled the legal world two months ago, when a widely respected, and staunchly conservative appeals court judge in Chicago issued withering criticism. In a written opinion, Judge Richard Posner noted that, in the previous year, his court had reversed a staggering 40 percent of the immigration cases that came before it. Posner cited several. In one he said, "The legal reasoning left a gaping hole."

In another, the judge was hostile. And yet another, Posner's appeal court found that, quote, "The tone, tenor, disparagement, and sarcasm of the immigration judge seemed more appropriate to a court television show."

It all sounds familiar to long time immigration lawyer Ira Kurzban.

Mr. IRA KURZBAN (Immigration Attorney): You have opinions that simply don't hang together logically, that wind up using a good deal of speculation to reach their conclusions.

LUDDEN: Last month, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals criticized a judge for intemperate and biased-laden remarks. In the case, an Indonesian woman sought asylum, alleging two decades of ethnic and religious persecution. When on cross-examination, she said she'd like her sister to come to the U.S. for more education and a better job, Judge Donald Ferlise launched into a mini-lecture.

According to the transcript he said, "The whole world does not revolve around you and the other Indonesians that just want to live here because they enjoy the United States better." Judge Ferlise's office did not return calls seeking comment.

Ms. DENISE SLAVIN (President, National Association of Immigration Judges): Unfortunately, if there may be problems with a few judges, I don't think we should all be tainted by same brush.

LUDDEN: Denise Slavin heads the National Association of Immigration Judges, and says some sympathy is in order. The number of immigration cases has skyrocketed in recent years. Slavin says some judges can try four asylum cases a day, leaving them emotionally and mentally exhausted. Meanwhile, she says immigration judges are not getting the support they need.

Ms. SLAVIN: For example, we have had no training conferences in person for the last three years. Now, cultural sensitivity training has usually been part of judge's training. We use to have an annual conference every year, but because of funding cuts, we have not.

LUDDEN: Cultural sensitivity aside, Slavin and others also see a deeper problem. Lawyer Ira Kurzban traces it to changes former Attorney General John Ashcroft made at the Board of Immigration Appeals. That's the body that hears challenges to decision by immigration judges.

Mr. KURZBAN: And the first thing he did was really, what can only be considered a purge of the members of the board, by reducing the board numbers almost in half.

LUDDEN: Then in 2002, Ashcroft ordered so-called streamlining. This meant just one judge at the Board of Immigration Appeals could rule on a case, and could do so without giving a reason for his decision. Kurzban says the idea was to plow through an enormous backlog of cases, but he thinks it's been taken to extremes.

Mr. KURZBAN: I've been told by staff members at the board, that they're really only given 15 minutes to review the record and make a decision in an appeal. I mean, that is just ludicrous.

LUDDEN: Now, more and more of these hastily decided cases are being challenged, and they're creating a new backlog, as they flood the federal appeals courts. Ideally, Deborah Notkin, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, would like to see streamlining reversed, and more judges hired. At minimum, she'd like more accountability.

Ms. DEBORAH NOTKIN (President, American Immigration Lawyers Association): We would like to see a better review process of judges who are rude, and lack normal decorum in the courtroom, and who make arbitrary decisions, so that we can have balanced and fair opinions across the board.

LUDDEN: The Justice Department had no comment on the accusations beyond saying an investigation is underway. Attorney General Gonzales has said once the review is done, he'll ask for recommendations for action.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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