MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Over the past few years, the Bush administration's immigration crackdown has created a lot of new jobs. There are thousands more immigration agents to arrest immigrants, and hundreds more government lawyers to handle prosecutions. But there are not more immigration judges, and they now face a staggering caseload.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden has the first in a series of reports on the nation's overburdened immigration enforcement system.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: We can all feel overwhelmed at work, but consider this ratio: Last year, 214 immigration judges adjudicated nearly 350,000 deportation and asylum cases.
Dana Leigh Marks, who heads the Immigration Judges Union, says she spends 36 hours a week on the bench trying to keep up. And Marks doesn't even have the basic resources other judges take for granted.
DANA LEIGH MARKS: I'm lucky. Here in San Francisco, I have one-quarter of a law clerk. Throughout the country, the ratio of law clerks to immigration judges makes it so that most judges have one-sixth of a law clerk.
LUDDEN: Marks says she can definitely feel like Lucy on the chocolate factory line. But with many defendants seeking refuge from persecution, the frenetic work pace is hardly a comedy.
LEIGH MARKS: The stakes raised in immigration courts are very high. For some people, these are the equivalent of death penalty cases. And we are conducting these cases in a traffic court setting.
BRITTNEY NYSTROM: What we have is an immigration court system that simply can't handle the number of cases that are pouring into it.
LUDDEN: Brittney Nystrom, of the National Immigration Forum, says immigration law is exceedingly complex, and can demand knowledge of conditions in countries spanning the globe. But, as the recent immigration crackdown has led to ballooning backlogs, judges have come under pressure to speed up decision- making.
NYSTROM: So judges may waive the testimony of a witness and just choose to review a submitted statement. Or they may direct the applicant to focus on one part of their story, instead of hearing all of the testimony.
LUDDEN: One result has been a surge in appeals, and scathing attacks by federal appeals judges. They've criticized immigration courts for inconsistent - sometimes illogical - decision-making. In 2006, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pledged to hire more immigration judges. The office that oversees these judges declined our interview request, but its director, Kevin Ohlson, spoke to Congress last fall.
KEVIN OHLSON: We've been able to hire 18 top-notch immigration judges to augment the many truly outstanding judges we already have on the bench. What's more, there are an additional 16 immigration judge candidates in the pipeline.
LUDDEN: But that effort hasn't even kept up with attrition. As of last fall, there were fewer immigration judges than when Attorney General Gonzales ordered new hires. Some are calling for other ways to bring down the backlog of cases. Julie Myers-Wood led Immigration and Customs Enforcement, until recently. She says, since there is no right to a lawyer in deportation cases, many immigrants represent themselves. And that can mean confusion and delays.
JULIE MYERS: Making sure that aliens know about what their rights are, making sure that we're pushing to get pro bono counsel out there. And aliens having representation, I think, could be the most positive thing for immigration courts that we can really see.
LUDDEN: Myers-Wood also would like to keep expanding a program in which immigrants bypass the courtroom altogether, and agree to be deported. But that's controversial among lawyers, who say many immigrants may not realize they have a legal case to stay in the U.S.,. Dana Leigh Marks, of the Immigration Judges Union, says, no shortcut can overcome the need for more judges on the bench.
LEIGH MARKS: I think the immigration judges across the United States do an admirable job. But the lack of resources and the persistent inability to spend more time on cases is a factor which, I know, is wearing me and my colleagues down.
LUDDEN: In fact, a University of California study found immigration judges face stress levels equal to emergency room doctors and prison wardens. And the number of cases coming their way doesn't appear to be slowing anytime soon.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
BLOCK: One way immigration courts are coping with so many cases, they're conducting hearings via video. We'll hear that story tomorrow.
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