While political battles rage back and forth on Capitol Hill and congressman and members of the US Senate debate the relative merits of amnesty or anathema of citizenship; while economists and political scientists hurl figures into the press rolls comparing the variances in potential job growth, gross domestic product expansion, and increasing federal revenues between what “legal status” versus citizenship of 11 million undocumented immigrants will bring to the US; and while all the angry rhetoric flies off the comment reels below every op-ed piece denouncing one political party’s approach to The Immigration Problem, writer Eli Saslow in the Washington Post details how in one courtroom, immigration attorneys stand before one judge whose caseload forces him to decide a family’s fate in seven minutes.
Seven minutes doesn’t leave much time for family members of undocumented immigrants to say their prayers or immigration attorneys to present their case, but it’s all that Judge Lawrence Burman has for each of his 26 cases he hears before noon in the Arlington Immigration Court. The White House and Congress are making the promises, but it is in every one of the 57 US immigration courtrooms that the decisions are made. And many of them are made through interpreters and remotely connected TV screens since the government lacks the time and resources to transport detained immigrants to their cases.
Immigration attorneys stand up before fewer than 250 judges in the country qualified to make these decisions. The judges were interviewed by a group of psychiatrists about their work in 2008, and the position was described as “impossibly stressful,” reflecting higher burnout rates than those of prison guards or physicians in busy hospitals. Since 2008 it has only gotten worse. A congressional proposal to hire 225 more immigration judges stalled in the House of Representatives last year, and nearly half of the 249 who are left will be eligible for retirement in the coming year. If all who are eligible retire, it would give an immigration attorney 3.5 minutes to present a client’s case before a judge whose caseload has just doubled.
Immigration judges hear 1,550 cases every year. Federal judges decide 440. As many as three immigration judges share one law clerk, while every federal judge has four clerks each. Immigration judges, as Saslow writes, are “scheduled to sit on the bench for 36 hours a week and listen to asylum cases that detailed people’s escapes from gangs, rapes, beheadings, human trafficking and torture; and then having to objectively ask those people for the documents, for the scars, for the proof; and then making a judgment about the character of those people, first through a video feed and then through an interpreter; and then judging the merits of their cases in the shifting landscape of immigration law; and finally taking a deep breath, synthesizing so much information, and rendering a lawful, smart, artful, confident decision on the spot, because the schedule allowed little time for reflection or written decisions before the next case began.”
So while Washington decides its political agenda, conservatives berate the mass moral turpitude of undocumented immigrants, and progressives lament the injustice of the broken system, immigration attorneys will continue to stand up before overworked judges faced with the impossible task: implementing the nation’s immigration law well.