A recent article in the Washington Post has done a good job at highlighting the current issues facing immigration courts and judges. The article speaks to the fact that the immigration court system is overburdened and overwhelmed.
There are 57 immigration courts throughout the United States and all of them are extremely busy. The Washington Post article focused on one immigration court located in Crystal City, Virginia. This court is presided over by Judge Lawrence Burman. On the day he was visited by a Washington Post reporter, he had 26 cases on his docket that all needed to be decided before lunchtime. This is nothing new. In fact, lawyers in the area have started referring to the immigration court as a “rocket docket.”
This typical immigration court is a great example of why immigration reform is so badly needed and why the justice system cannot wait any longer for change to happen. On the surface, it's encouraging to hear that both the President and Congress are willing to work together in order to get some type of immigration reform passed sooner rather than later. However, if you dig a little deeper, you realize how great this problem really is. It's even more startling when you start looking at the numbers: “11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, at least 50,000 more trying to enter every month, 21,000 agents patrolling the borders, $18 billion spent each year on enforcement and about 1,000 people deported each day.”
In Crystal City, Judge Burman's docket is so packed, he has just seven minutes to spend on each case. The courtroom is full of family members, pastors, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Court personnel are forced to turn people away because there is no more room available. Caseloads are so overwhelming that attorneys bring in rolling file cabinets because it's no longer possible to physically carry all of the files needed for that day.
Judge Burman is well known in immigration law circles. His reputation for fairness is appreciated by both prosecutors and defense attorneys. Although Judge Burman is well-known for being kind, the job takes its toll. He is forced to make decisions that will impact people for the rest of their lives. He is tasked with the ultimate decision of whether a father is reunited with his family or whether the immigrant will suffer the fate of deportation.
Not only does he hear tough, emotional cases, but he hears a lot of them. It's estimated that federal judges decide 440 cases a year while immigration judges hear 1,500. A federal judge normally has up to four clerks while immigration judges fight for time with the one they share. One immigration judge was quoted as saying it's “like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting.”
Even if immigration reform does get passed in 2014, it will likely take years for some of the effects to be seen in these everyday immigration court proceedings. That is why it is so important we see this reform soon. Until then, more and more people will be forced to sit in detention centers, away from family, and wait for their seven minutes in court.