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National, Local Legal Advocates File Lawsuit In Portland Against Trump Administration

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Dec. 18, 2019 6 p.m.

Legal service providers filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging the “weaponization” of the U.S. immigration court system. The filing is asking a federal judge in Portland to declare that the court system is illegal.

“In the American tradition of justice, judges are supposed to be impartial,” the filing reads. “Not so in the immigration courts of the United States, where judges answer to the nation’s chief prosecutor, the Attorney General.”


Related: US Attorney General Rejects Oregon's Rule Barring Courthouse Immigration Arrests

The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Portland’s Innovation Law Lab and other groups, claims the Trump administration has “manipulated the immigration court system to serve an anti-immigrant agenda.”

Former immigration judge Ilyce Shugall spoke with reporters Wednesday about her experience with the court system. She worked as an immigration judge for almost two years.

“I swore to uphold the constitution at my investiture,” said Shugall. “When the administration made it impossible to do so, I resigned.”

“This administration’s policies have entirely eroded what independence and legitimacy remains in the immigration court system,” she said.


The Trump administration has implemented “performance metrics” for immigration judges, said Shugall — assigning quotas which make judges decide approximately three cases per day, essentially rushing the adjudication process.

“If the judges don’t meet these case quotas and other metrics, they risk losing their jobs,” said Melissa Crow with Southern Poverty Law Center. “This policy essentially gives judges a personal, financial stake in every case they decide and pushes them to deny more cases more quickly.”

Other policies burden the court system by delaying immigration cases, creating a backlog of more than one million, the filing states.

“This means thousands of asylum applicants have to wait three or even four years for a court case,” Crow said. “Over time, witnesses' memories fade and crucial evidence may become stale or unavailable. In addition, pro bono attorneys are often unwilling to commit to cases that could last for years.”

That backlog is not related to case-specific factors, the lawsuit states, but rather U.S. Attorney General William Barr's mismanagement.

“The U.S. immigration courts are rigged against justice,” said Stephen Manning with Innovation Law Lab.

The lawsuit also states that the Trump administration has perpetuated and expanded “asylum free zones” — immigration courts throughout the nation where at least 85% of asylum claims have been denied.

The percentage of U.S. immigration courts that fit that definition has risen from 24.6% in 2017 to almost 40% this year.

All of these processes subvert the Immigration and Nationality Act, a federal law “intended to ensure case-by-case decision-making,” the lawsuit reads, as well as the Take Care Clause of the U.S. Constitution, requiring the president to obey and enforce all laws, and the Administrative Procedure Act — a law that dictates how federal agencies can create regulations.

“I hope this lawsuit will eventually lead to a truly independent immigration court system," Shugall said, “where judges can uphold their oath and therefore immigrants receive the due process they’re entitled and deserve.”