Faulty data hampers DoJ's immigration courts, IG finds

Friday - 11/2/2012, 11:35am EDT

Michael Horowitz, inspector general, Department of Justice

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What happens to suspected illegal immigrants once they go before immigration courts? It seems even the courts themselves aren't too sure.

A new Justice Department inspector general report suggests the office running those courts — the Executive Office for Immigration Review — doesn't have a handle on the situation.

Michael Horowitz, Justice Department's inspector general, said the problem is in the way the courts count their data and relay that data to Congress in their annual reports.

"They've set, for example, a completion goal in detained alien cases of 60 days from start to finish," Horowitz told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Friday. "But what happens, occasionally, is administrative events such as a change of courthouse causes a case to go from one court to another. But, if the first court reaches a decision within 60 days, the immigration courts count that as a success and a completion, when, in fact, all they've done is move it to another court to start the clock running again."

Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Department of Justice

About one-quarter of the cases the IG reviewed had those kind of events taking place.

"We couldn't figure out whether the immigration courts were meeting their completion goals because they were essentially double-counting cases, both closings and openings," Horowitz said.

Although the IG looked at cases involving both detained and non-detained aliens, the cases in question involved aliens the Department of Homeland Security had charged and placed in the immigration court system.

"We have over 300,000 cases reported by the immigration courts that are ongoing," Horowitz said. "The problem is, we can't figure out whether those are double- counted or not in some instances. It's hard to get an accurate count on exactly how many cases they have going through the system and that's the problem."

The IG also found that the immigration courts were having trouble keeping up with the volume of work, whether they were double-counting cases or not.

"We're seeing, over the last five years, an increasing number of cases, even with additional judges, the number of cases that are resolved one way or the other is not keeping up with the number of cases coming in the door," Horowitz said.

What concerns Horowitz is that the immigration courts' inablity to stem the growing number of cases could delay those cases from being resolved in a timely manner.

"The old adage 'justice delayed is justice denied' that goes both ways," he said. "If there are aliens in the system who should not have been charged, they need to get their day in court and that needs to be resolved fairly and quickly. On the other hand, individuals who shouldn't be in this country who are in this country, those cases need to be resolved quickly and that's one of the concerns here."

The report recommended the immigration courts resolve its data reporting issues first, so that it could more efficiently deal with the growing workload.

"In the first instance, you got to have the data that allows you to figure out where your problem is," Horowitz said. "Where are the pressure points in the system? And that was the difficulty and the concern we had. They've got to figure out either how to better manage the resources they have or, in a tight budget environment, figure out if they can get more resources to process these cases."

According to the IG report, the average time it takes to resolve one of these cases is 17-1/2 months, but some cases take as long as five years to come to completion.

"In the federal courts, you have a speedy trial act and you have a management system in place that judges recognize in criminal cases the importance of moving criminal cases forward because of the significance of the criminal charge," Horowitz said. "I think there's a significance here of what's going on in the immigration courts that makes it different from civil litigation or other areas where we hear about backlogs in courts."

The IG also found that many of the immigration cases ended up with a significant number of continuences by the courts. "It was unclear to us whether it was legitimate or whether they were overwhelmed courts, for example, just having to manage their docket through countinuences or whether is was some other problem," Horowitz said.

This goes back to the core of the immigration courts' problem — obtaining accurate data so that they can get to the root of the problem.

"If you're going to manage a docket system, you've got to understand who's handling [them] the most efficiently, which judges are handling them the best way, what those best practices are and try to manage them to that level," Horowitz said.

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