Monday, February 03, 2014

Stress on Immigration Judges

Fantastic story in the Washington Post about federal immigration courts, the backlog of which I've written about numerous times. Any discussion of immigration reform needs to take courts and judges into consideration. I've done expert witness testimony in a number of cases, and I have seen firsthand how judges have a very short amount of time to sort out a large amount of evidence and then make a life-altering decision for another human being and--often--their family. As a result, those judges burn out while Congress looks the other way.

A group of psychiatrists surveyed immigration judges about their work in 2008 and concluded that the job was “impossibly stressful,” with burnout rates exceeding those of prison guards or physicians in busy hospitals, and since then the courtroom conditions had only worsened. The law becomes more complex each time widespread reform defaults to more piecemeal solutions. A hiring freeze has reduced 272 judges to 249, and a congressional proposal to hire 225 more stalled last year in the House. Nearly half of the judges who are left will be eligible for retirement in the next year, which means caseloads are again expected to rise.

This is crazy. The judge followed by the reporter had an average of seven minutes to decide each of his January cases.

While Congress and the White House make promises about the future of undocumented immigrants, this is the place where decisions must be made — day after day, case after case, in one of the 57 overwhelmed immigration courts across the country. Here, on the second floor of a high rise in Crystal City, tissue boxes are stacked near the courtroom entrance and attorneys push rolling file cabinets, because a briefcase is no longer sufficient to hold caseloads that have tripled in the past decade.

There seems to be this impression that Congress can create new laws and somehow everything will just magically work. Immigration reform cannot work at all until the court system itself is reformed, and that means hiring a lot more judges. In the future, if there is a way for 12ish (or more) million undocumented immigrants to apply for some type of legal status, the current system simply will not be able to handle the load.


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