The federal court that hears immigration cases and administers the nation's immigration laws is "flawed" and has failed to keep up with pending cases despite an increase in the number of judges, a report said Thursday.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, in a 74-page report, said the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which decides whether illegal immigrants should be removed from the country and adjudicates cases involving undocumented workers, has failed to keep up with its caseload despite a $302.3 million budget and more than 1,500 personnel, including 238 judges.
Mr. Horowitz's office found that EOIR's performance reporting for both the immigration courts, where alien removal cases are heard, and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which handles appeals from those decisions, was so flawed that Justice Department officials were unable to determine how well immigration cases and appeals were being processed or identifying needed improvements.
Investigators also said some immigration cases and appeals took long to complete; performance reports were incomplete and overstated actual accomplishments; and EOIR did not accurately report the time it took to complete cases.
The report concluded that the total number of cases resolved by the immigration courts each year and the total time those cases remained in the court system overall were not readily apparent in EOIR's performance reports.
In addition, the report said, investigators found that EOIR reported administrative events, such as changes of venue and transfers, as case completions even though no decision had been reached yet on whether to remove aliens from the United States. As a result, it said, a case could be "completed" multiple times.
"Reporting these administrative actions as completions overstates the accomplishments of the immigration courts," the report said.
Mr. Horowitz said that while the investigation found no evidence to suggest EOIR intended for its reporting to be misleading, "substantially complete and accurate data reporting is essential for EOIR to better administer the volume of immigration cases, and without an accurate and comprehensive picture of how the immigration courts are performing, EOIR will be limited in its ability to identify areas that need improvement."
According to the report, from fiscal 2006 through fiscal 2010, the overall efficiency of the courts did not improve even though there was an increase in the number of judges. It said cases for non-detained illegal immigrants took on average 17½ months to adjudicate, with some cases taking more than five years.
The report also said that in addition to new-case volume, a major contributor to processing times, especially in cases with non-detained aliens, was the number and length of continuances immigration judges granted. In 1,785 closed cases examined by the Inspector General's Office, 953 cases — 53 percent — had one or more continuances. Each of the cases averaged four continuances and the average amount of time granted for each continuance was 92 days.
From fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2010, the report said, the number of new immigration cases rose from 308,652 to 325,326. At the same time, the number of proceedings the immigration courts completed declined about 11 percent, from 324,040 in 2006 to 287,207 in 2010.
According to the report, appeals of immigration judge decisions for non-detained aliens averaged over 16 months — almost five times longer than the 3½ month average for appeals involving those who had been detained.
The report also said the BIA is underreporting the time it takes to process an appeal because it does not always start counting the period from when a notice of appeal is filed. Instead, it said, in some cases EOIR begins tracking the time period from when a staff member is assigned to work on the appeal. The Inspector General's Office said that as a result, cases were pending up to 636 days longer than reported by EOIR in its sample.
Mr. Horowitz's office made nine recommendations to help EOIR improve its processing and management of immigration cases and appeals. EOIR concurred with six recommendations and partially concurred with three others.
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