Immigration reform plan focuses on U.S. judges

August 10, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from human-rights groups, the Bush administration announced plans yesterday to improve the performance of U.S. immigration judges, responding to reports of intemperate and abusive jurists and complaints about how the system has dealt with a growing backlog of cases.

The moves, announced by U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, include establishing regular performance evaluations and implementing proficiency exams for judges who are appointed after Dec. 31.

Gonzales also said he would seek to expand the number of immigration judges, including adding four members to an 11-person oversight panel known as the Board of Immigration Appeals.

The moves were among 22 recommendations made by a Justice Department task force that Gonzales established in January to focus on the performance of the nation's 224 immigration judges.

The review was ordered in the wake of allegations by immigrant-rights groups that judges were wrongly deporting people or denying bids for political asylum based on erroneous evidence or incompetence.

For example, an appellate board found that a political asylum case involving an Albanian citizen was mishandled because the judge relied on testimony from a document expert who did not speak or read Albanian.

In another case, a judge in Boston was suspended after he referred to himself as "Tarzan" during a court proceeding for a Ugandan woman named Jane.

There have also been concerns that an overhaul of the immigration appeals system, instituted in 2002 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, denied noncitizens their rights to due process. Ashcroft implemented a number of "streamlining" measures aimed at helping the immigration appeals board reduce a backlog of more than 50,000 cases.

Responding to pressure to clear the docket, the appeals board, which traditionally worked in panels of three, begin reviewing cases individually, often rendering decisions within minutes and without explanation.

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