Stress, emotion affect Immigration Court judges

Posted: February 20, 2014

Across a brightly lit room, three dozen immigrants sit shoulder-to-shoulder on three pew-like benches. Many look scared. Some murmur in Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Haitian Creole.

There is no bailiff; none but the judge to maintain order, call the cases, and render judgments, DIY-style. Lawyers waiting for clients' cases to be called pile up outside the four small courtrooms in the cramped corridor that one translator calls the "Hall of Anxiety."

With a backlog of 4,901 cases, Philadelphia's Immigration Court, housed on the fifth floor of a federal building in Center City, is chronically overburdened and thinly staffed, and reflects the workload crisis afflicting the nation's 57 other immigration courts.

Spend a few mornings there, and see what officials and advocates say is a system at its breaking point.

The average time to complete a case in Philadelphia, 640 days, is up 29 percent from 2009. The national average, 573 days, is up 33 percent over the same period.

Immigrants here generally are young and male. They are border-jumpers from South or Central America who entered from Mexico; Asians, Africans, Europeans and others on expired visas; and victims of foreign violence seeking asylum in the Land of the Free. Some are green-card holders pursuing U.S. citizenship, but with underlying legal problems to address.

A study released Thursday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University reported that the national rate for deportations is 50 percent, the lowest it has been in 20 years.

Still, the cases pile up, adding to the national backlog of more than 360,000.

One morning last week, with a docket of 45 cases, Judge Steven Morley, the newest of the Philadelphia court's four judges, sped through his "master calendar," assessing the readiness of cases for trial.

A former member of the immigrant-defense bar, Morley, 63, was appointed in 2010 by Attorney General Eric Holder. He teaches at Drexel University School of Law, and has a gray-flecked beard and a professorial air.

His demeanor was patient but firm when he continued the case of a Mexican man, here illegally, whom the Department of Homeland Security wants thrown out. The man's lawyer wants time to argue for a cancellation of removal.

Morley scheduled the case for a future date but wanted assurances of no more delays.

"Let me tell you what happens if you don't show up in my court," he said, addressing the man through an interpreter. "I order you removed [and] ICE agents show up and put you on a plane."

The man nodded solemnly.

"Next case," said Morley.

Ticking down the list, he devoted a few minutes to each matter. This is the housekeeping of litigation, but important to keep cases moving.

'I can't go back'

Unlike criminal defendants, who get state-paid public defenders if they are indigent, undocumented immigrants are not guaranteed lawyers. At least one-quarter of them show up unassisted. Guided by the judge, they represent themselves and struggle with interpreted English and legalese. Studies show they are much more likely to be deported when unrepresented.

While many cases dwell on procedural issues, the asylum cases are visceral.

An emotionally raw one hit Morley's courtroom, involving a 31-year-old woman whose name The Inquirer is withholding out of concern for her family's safety in Honduras. The woman, who lives in Delaware County, entered the United States illegally through Texas in 2010. She was caught by the U.S. border patrol and requested asylum. Her case was transferred to Philadelphia, where she joined her husband, who lives locally.

At a closed-door, 21/2-hour hearing, she testified that she suffered persecution and physical harm in Honduras while registering voters for the National Party. That party rules the country now but was the opposition when she fled Honduras, a country of 8.5 million people with the world's highest per capita murder rate.

"I can't go back. I'll die," she told the court, according to her lawyer, Douglas Grannan.

The gist of her asylum claim, he said, is a well-founded fear of harm based on past persecution. On cross-examination, the Homeland Security prosecutor pressed her for corroboration. Morley gave instruction about the burden of proof and took the matter under advisement.

From the daily grind of visa adjustments to the high-stakes drama of asylum claims, immigration judges suffer from enormous stress.

"Like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting," one judge, not from Philadelphia, famously testified to Congress about the job.

A 2008 survey of immigration judges published in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal found they experienced psychological strain on par with physicians at busy hospitals and prison wardens.

Case volume and a shortage of law clerks were the principal stressors then, and problems may worsen in 2014 as 100 of the 246 sitting judges become eligible for retirement, Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the immigration judges' national union, said in an interview.

The immigration reform bill passed in June by the Senate would have provided funding to hire 225 new immigration judges and more support staff. But reform efforts have stalled in the House.

Adequate funding for immigration courts is an afterthought when Congress adds funding for immigration enforcement, said Marks. "We are the Cinderellas" of the justice system, she said.

'Never see me again'

Back in Morley's courtroom, a man from Mali, who is married to a U.S. citizen but living apart as they try to arrange marriage counseling, is testifying that his two arrests for disputes with his wife should not bar his application for a green card. In one incident, a police report says, he used a knife to cut his wife on the arm. He denied the charge. And his wife came to Morley's court to back him up.

She told the judge she has problems with depression and excessive drinking, and fights with her husband when she is drunk. He called the police during one of the fights, she said, and she stabbed herself to try to get him in trouble.

Morley asked if she feared her husband.

"Am I afraid? No," she replied.

Do you find him to be violent? he pressed.

"He's not violent," she said. "He's a pretty nice person."

Reprising the facts for the record, Morley concluded that the man's financial support of his troubled wife, and self-defensive actions when she attacked him, outweighed the arrests.

He granted the green card application.

Wishing the couple luck, he added his signature parting line.

"If everything goes well," he said, "you will never see me again inside this courtroom."



Pending cases

in Philadelphia's Immigration Court.


Average number of days

to complete a case

in Philadelphia.


Pending immigration

cases nationally.


Average number of days to complete a case nationally.