Earlier this year, several North County Immigration clients were among the hundreds of immigrants nationwide that were duped into showing up for court hearings that didn’t exist.  The Justice Department is struggling with an overloaded immigration court system and the effects of the partial government shutdown.  Immigration attorneys in San Francisco reported that lines wrapped around the court building, a line stretched for blocks to get into the court in Los Angeles and hundreds of people waited outside the court in Newark, New Jersey.  These problems are an example of US immigration authorities issuing a large number of inaccurate notices ordering immigrants to appear at hearings that, it later turns out, had never been scheduled.  CNN reported last year that they’d observed a wave of what they call “fake dates” pop up. For instance, lawyers reported examples of notices to appear issued for nonexistent dates, such as September 31, and for times of day when courts aren’t open, such as midnight.

The American Bar Association is proposing a major overhaul of the US immigration system, calling the courts that decide whether to deport immigrants “irredeemably dysfunctional.”  “The immigration courts are facing an existential crisis,” the association says in a report released Wednesday. “The current system is irredeemably dysfunctional and on the brink of collapse.” The only way to fix “serious systemic issues,” the report argues, is to create what’s known as an Article I court. Akin to tax or bankruptcy courts, this would be a court that’s independent from the Justice Department.  It’s an idea that’s been proposed before by advocates and immigration judges. And the American Bar Association listed a similar proposal as an option for reform in a 2010 report on the US immigration system.

Its report on Wednesday warns that recent policy changes have made a system that was already stretched at the seams even worse.  The new report notes much worse conditions since their last report in 2010, specifically mentioning an unprecedented backlog of cases, increased wait times, policy changes that aim to accelerate cases without allocating enough funding, over-reliance on video teleconferencing during court proceedings and possible bias in the hiring of judges.  The Justice Department, which runs US immigration courts, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ABA report.  The report also alleges that judicial independence has been called into question “with a resurgence of alleged politicized hiring and the adoption of policies that arguably undermine immigration judges’ ability to perform their role as a neutral arbitrator of fact and law.”  The report lists more than 100 recommendations, including when video conferencing should be used in court and rescinding the recently imposed quotas and metrics used to evaluate immigration judges. Many of the recommendations were also made in 2010 but were not followed, the report acknowledges.  “Today, our immigration courts and other adjudicative systems face untenable backlogs, yet efforts to reduce those backlogs have been largely ineffective, or, at worst, counterproductive to the goals of an independent judiciary.”
More than 800,000 cases are currently pending in US immigration courts, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. At the time of its 2010 report, the ABA says there were about 262,000 cases pending.