Overwhelmed immigration courts are a national problem, and the growing backlog means an average immigration case is waiting in court for a record 717 days, as of 2018, according to Syracuse University.
But Maryland, with its more than 34,000 pending cases, has the fastest-growing backlog, largely because its sole immigration court, the Baltimore Immigration Court, is one of the most beleaguered and understaffed in the country, according to a confidential Department of Justice review obtained by VICE News.
VICE News first obtained a heavily redacted version of the report through a records request but later obtained an uncensored version of the review, which paints a portrait of dysfunction at one of the busiest immigration courts in the country.
Completed in 2018 and covering the years 2014 to 2017, the review shows a department so understaffed that basic functions such as address changes or orders to appear in court were not processed or sent out as caseloads piled up. Failing to process key documents could deny migrants the opportunity to be heard in court. “Poor management of this core process leads to additional work for the Court and can result in respondents being ordered removed in absentia through no fault of their own,” the report says.
As the court's caseload mounted, the number of sitting judges stayed the same, fluctuating between four and five. As a point of reference, Chicago’s immigration court, which has a comparable caseload, has twice the number of sitting judges.
No habla Español
The court's office had no Spanish speakers on staff, even though 84 percent of its cases involved a respondent who only spoke Spanish. The equipment in the office was dated and often nonfunctional. “The two existing HP copiers in the Baltimore Court have had numerous issues and there have been literally days when the Court is unable to use either copier,” the report said.
A lack of administrative staff meant boxes with thousands of documents were left sitting on the floor or on top of file cabinets, and the report describes “hallway space filled with files, file carts, printers and the like.”
One judge currently on the court told VICE News that as cases and administrative work piles up, the court may not be able to provide due process.
“I’m happy to be retirement-eligible, and quite frankly a lot of us are,” said Baltimore Immigration Judge Denise N. Slavin, who spoke to VICE News in her capacity as president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “I feel like if I get pushed to a point to violate due process, or I’m being disciplined for not doing something that I thought would violate due process, I would be able to leave.”
As bad as it's been in the Baltimore Immigration Court, it’s about to get worse. On Monday, a new policy backed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions went into effect mandating that the nation’s roughly 330 immigration judges process at least 700 cases per year. The Department of Justice has said it will hire 100 new immigration judges this calendar year to help with the backlog, but current and former immigration judges say more judges without commensurate support staff will only add to the problem.
The confidential report on the Baltimore Immigration Office was performed by a court administrator at the request of the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge, a branch of the DOJ. Unlike state or federal courts, immigration courts are part of the Department of Justice, and therefore part of the executive branch of government.
The review took place in November and December of last year, and focused on the time period from 2014-2017, when the Baltimore Immigration Court caseload nearly quadrupled.
Though the caseload was rising during that period, the court was shedding staff: They lost seven full-time permanent employees. “The shortage of staff in the Baltimore Court was so severe the Court did not have enough employees to manage the Court’s core processes,” the report says.
The report coincides with a 2014 surge of crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border. Baltimore’s caseload began to grow rapidly afterward. Despite having completed 33.11 percent more cases from 2015 to 2016 combined, the court’s efforts were not enough to keep pace with the mounting backlog. At the end of 2014, the court had 8,331 pending cases, and by December 2017 the pending caseload jumped to 29,184, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse database, or TRAC, at Syracuse University.
“It feels like you are being buried alive”
Backlogs in the immigration courts have historically been impacted by shifting migration patterns, immigration policy changes, and hiring freezes on judges and staff. But since President Trump took office in 2017, the number of pending cases in immigration courts has increased 41 percent, bringing the total to 764,561 as of August 31, 2018, according to TRAC.
“It feels like you are being buried alive,” said Los Angeles Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor, speaking as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “It’s like this tsunami of cases that just never goes away, and instead of [us] being helped, the department is just adding more pressure.”
Sessions has said the quota system will help cut down the record-high backlog, but immigration judges, both current and retired, have pushed back, saying the standard would threaten due process and judicial independence.
“There’s an overabundance of attention on efficiency and there seems to be little to no concern from higher-ups on getting the decisions right,” said retired New York City Immigration Judge Jeffrey S. Chase.
Baltimore’s immigration court is relatively small, but it has been operating with a caseload similar to that of a large immigration court. While more populous states have a number of immigration courts—there are seven courts in California, for instance, and six in New York—the Baltimore facility is the only one in Maryland.
The report describes at length how staff failed to maintain order as paperwork grew. “As of early December 2017, there were approximately 700-1,000 additional filings sitting in the Court that are made up of EOIR-28s, EOIR-33s, returned notices, general correspondence and motions that have not been processed,” the report says. (An EOIR-28 is a notice of appearance in court. An EOIR-33 is a change-of-address form.)
“How the Baltimore court manages motions still needs improvement. Poor management of this core responsibility leads to additional work for the Court, and it sends the message to the private bar and to DHS that the Court is not organized and cannot be relied on,” the report said.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the report.
At the time of the review, the Baltimore court had 24,142 pending cases in which the respondent spoke Spanish but no Spanish-speakers on staff. At one point, the staff resorted to pulling two judges off the bench to help the front desk with translation needs, said one EOIR employee.
Other times they had to enlist the help of someone in the waiting room to interpret for people. “Sometimes they were not getting the best information or even accurate information about their case,” said the EOIR employee.
“Recruitment of a Spanish Interpreter should be a priority,” the report says, but that position has yet to be filled.
All these issues are expected to worsen with the rollout of the quota system. “We’ll have preliminary success with getting a large number of cases out and temporarily reduce the backlog, but ultimately a large number of those cases will come back on appeal, thus making the backlog even worse,” Slavin said.
At the end of the day, the taxpayer will be on the hook for the cost of the immigration policy, said retired Baltimore immigration judge F. Gossart Jr. “All this is going to be litigated at taxpayers' expense, but it’s all in the effort to fulfill a political promise.”
Cover: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session delivers remarks during a remembrance vigil for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in the Great Hall at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building September 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)