Speedy immigration rulings cause outcry from noncitizens

Many decisions are short or lack any explanation

January 05, 2003|By Lisa Getter and Jonathan Peterson | Lisa Getter and Jonathan Peterson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FALLS CHURCH, Va. - A U.S. Justice Department overhaul of the immigration appeals system, often the last stop for people fighting deportation, has prompted a barrage of unusually fast rulings rendered without explanation - and an outcry about noncitizens' rights to due process.

The changes, pushed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, direct the beleaguered Board of Immigration Appeals to clear its 56,000-case backlog by March 25. The 23-member board, which reviews the rulings of 220 immigration judges nationwide, is often the last hope for foreigners who contend that they face death, torture or other travails if forced to return to their homelands.

To meet the deadline, board members, who usually worked in panels of three and ruled after careful deliberation, are reviewing cases individually and ruling within minutes, often issuing just two-line decisions, according to a review conducted by the Los Angeles Times. And as the number of cases decided by the board has soared, so has the rate at which board members have ruled against foreigners facing deportation.

In turn, immigrants are appealing to the federal court system in unprecedented numbers, creating another backlog, The Times found in a survey of federal appellate courts.

Immigrant advocates say the speedup is the latest in a series of actions compromising the rights of noncitizens after the Sept. 11 attacks.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff, a law professor at Georgetown University and former Immigration and Naturalization Service general counsel, said, "We are already seeing results: Many, many cases are decided at a speed that makes it impossible to believe they got the scrutiny a person who faces removal from the United States deserves."

A Times computer study found that the board began increasing the number of summary rulings with no elaboration soon after Ashcroft proposed the changes in February, even though the new rules did not go into effect until Sept. 25. In March, for instance, 38 percent of the board's decisions were summary rulings, compared with 9 percent the month before. By August, more than half the board's decisions were summary rulings, virtually all upholding the immigration judges' findings. From March 1 through Sept. 24, single members of the board issued 16,275 decisions without explanation.

The denial rate has risen in tandem, The Times found. The board rejected 86 percent of its appeals in October, compared with 59 percent the previous October.

"From our perspective, streamlining reforms is working and doing precisely what the reforms were intended to do," said Susan Eastwood, spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that oversees the appeals board. "Appeals are being adjudicated in a timely manner and are carefully considered to ensure that each appellant receives due process."

Immigrants in the system have violated U.S. immigration law - perhaps illegally entering the country, overstaying a visa or committing a crime - and have been turned down by an immigration judge. Many do not have attorneys. They may appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, whose members might have little background in immigration law. If immigrants lose there, they may appeal to federal district courts.

The system has long been considered slow and inefficient, enabling illegal immigrants to postpone deportation for months or years. But the fast decision-making has startled even the board's critics.

For many people caught in the system, the lack of explanation offered by the appeals board is a source of frustration.

"I've talked to people who know about immigration laws, and nobody seems to know why this is happening to me," said Freddy Larrea, a substance-abuse counselor in Boston who faces deportation. Larrea, who came from Colombia in the 1980s and is married to an American, argues that he has met a 10-year residency requirement and deserves legal status.

On Sept. 6, board member Kevin Ohlson turned down his plea without explanation. "There's no way of knowing whether he read the file," said Larrea's attorney, Ilana Greenstein, who is appealing the case in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

One Justice Department official said he expected the federal courts to ship back to the immigration appeals board some of the hastily decided cases. "You can't just wave a wand on this backlog and have it disappear," he said.

Lisa Getter and Jonathan Peterson are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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