- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Judges and lawyers handling immigration appeals say the increasing workload is resulting in hastily decided, poorly advocated cases.

“You need better lawyering in these cases,” said Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

The nation’s 223 federal immigration judges handled 334,607 cases in the past fiscal year, up from 254,515 in 2000, when there were 206 immigration judges, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a Justice Department agency that oversees immigration issues.

“The caseload increased dramatically as a consequence of various decisions of the executive branch,” Judge Katzmann said.

Under a streamlining policy established in 2002, the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which decides whether immigrants should be deported, has expedited its fact-finding procedures and deportation decisions, which can be appealed in federal court.

The appeal rate of deportation cases to federal courts has risen from 8 percent in 2002 to 30 percent in 2007, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

“Basically, the Board of Immigration Appeals had accumulated by March 2002 a backlog of more than 56,000 cases nationally. To lessen the backlog, the BIA started to expand its use of summary procedures. As a result, the number of petitions for review in federal court increased very dramatically,” Judge Katzmann said.

According to a July 28 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, many BIA rulings were hastily put together under tight deadlines, reflecting thin legal reasoning. In addition, Justice Department lawyers assigned to handle them often were poorly prepared for immigration cases.

“The consequences of people appearing before these courts is huge,” said Laura Lichter, an immigration lawyer in Denver. “You’re talking about splitting up families or sending people back to dangerous places - a total recipe for disaster.”

One immigrant who says his case was mishandled is Alaa S. Awad, assistant professor of research at the University of Virginia.

From January 2002 until last month, Dr. Awad had been researching diabetic kidney complications under a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. He published scientific papers on his research and won two awards from the American Heart Association.

Last month, the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) notified Dr. Awad, an Egyptian native, that his application for residency was denied and that his work permit was revoked. CIS officials told him that he lacked the one year of research experience required for his work permit.

“Can you believe this?” Dr. Awad said. “I have been placed on obligatory leave without pay this Monday, and my NIH grants and my entire career are threatened and I may leave the U.S., selling my home and discontinuing my research.”

In some cases, the Justice Department has been criticized for allowing immigrants to stay who should be deported.

In San Francisco, local authorities are accusing federal law enforcement officials of mishandling the case of Edwin Ramos, a reputed gang member charged with killing a man and his two sons in a road-rage incident in June.

Deportation proceedings were pending against Mr. Ramos, an El Salvador native, who had been arrested on a gun-related charge in March. But federal officials did not put an “immigration hold” on him that would have allowed him to be taken into custody.

His case has not been reviewed by a federal appeals court.

Since 2006, the Justice Department instituted some reforms to address the issue, including hiring more immigration judges and BIA staffers, increasing the budget for the Executive Office for Immigration Review and revising the disciplinary process for immigration lawyers.

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