Immigrant Rights News – Thursday, August 28, 2008
Please Note: IRN & other NNIRR posts are available at www.nnirr.blogspot.com
1. Two on Arizona:
A. Arizona Daily Star: Maricopa sheriff's raid nets 29; most face felony ID theft charges
B. Tucson Citizen: Feds to end funding of ER care for migrants
2. Hattiesburg American: Coincidence? Laurel schools see attendance drop
3. AP News: Factory had tension between union, immigrants
4. Washington Post: Businesses Cite a Catch-22 After Miss. Immigration Raid
5. AP News: Immigration agency vows more enforcement
6. Daily Journal: Immigration Reforms Result in Fewer Judges, More Prosecutors
Arizona Daily Star
Maricopa sheriff's raid nets 29; most face felony ID theft charges
By Amanda Lee Myers
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PHOENIX — Authorities raided a Phoenix-area landscaping business Wednesday, arresting 29 illegal immigrants, some of whom are accused of using fake Social Security numbers to land a job.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office served the search warrants at Artistic Land Management in Mesa following weeks of surveillance it conducted after receiving a tip from a former employee, Sheriff Joe Arpaio said.
Arpaio said the employee told his office the business was knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and the owner instructed her to ignore discrepancies in Social Security numbers provided by workers.
Repeated calls to Artistic Land Management and its owner, Jose Hernandez, were not returned Wednesday.
Arpaio said the business had contracts with the cities of Phoenix, Mesa and Chandler plus the Maricopa County Housing Authority.
The Sheriff's Office is investigating whether Hernandez has broken Arizona's employer sanctions law. To be charged under the law, authorities must prove employers knew they were hiring illegal immigrants.
Of 70 workers at one of the company's Mesa locations Wednesday, Arpaio said, 29 turned out to be illegal entrants; 20 of them were to be booked on state felony charges of identity theft, and the other nine were still being interviewed.
Feds to end funding of ER care for migrants
Hospitals say they will not deny treatment
HEIDI ROWLEY email@example.com
Tucson-area hospitals estimate that providing emergency care for illegal immigrants has cost them more than $66 million since 2005.
The federal government has reimbursed them for $13 million of that through a Medicare program that began in 2005.
But on Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal 2009 fiscal year, even that financial help will go away when the reimbursement program ends.
Hospitals are federally mandated to treat anyone needing care, and most health-care professionals feel a moral responsibility to do so. Caught between concerns about their own financial health and the tensions over the nation's immigration policies, local hospitals try to send illegal immigrants who need expensive or long-term care back to their country of origin.
Patients' families have challenged such transfers by hospitals in Phoenix, and The New York Times reported earlier this month about a Florida case in which a hospital transported a patient to Guatemala while the transfer was being challenged in court.
Local hospital officials say they transport patients only with patient or family consent and with approval of officials from the country of origin.
University Medical Center has been unable to transfer an unidentified patient it calls Adobe - who can't communicate as the result of a brain injury from an April rollover - because it has been unable to find his family or establish his country of origin.
"You can't just put somebody on an airplane," said James Richardson, UMC's vice president and in-house counsel.
UMC, which has the only Level 1 trauma center in southern Arizona, shoulders the greatest expense among local hospitals for treating illegal immigrants. It lobbied unsuccessfully in Washington, D.C., in July to extend the federal reimbursement.
"This is a federal problem," said hospital CEO Greg Pivirotto. "This should not be an Arizona, Tucson or UMC issue. I'm sorry that (the federal reimbursement is) going to go away."
But, he said, "we're never going to turn away somebody who needs care."
Under Section 1011 of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, the government designated $250 million a year to be divided among the 50 states for emergency care of illegal immigrants. Arizona received $44.5 million in fiscal year 2007.
Hospitals that want Section 1011 funds have to prove that administrators tried to collect from the patient and other funding sources. Section 1011 is to be used as a last resort, said UMC spokeswoman Katie Riley.
UMC received $2 million from Section 1011 in both 2007 and 2006. According to information submitted to Medicare, UMC spent $11 million and $8 million in 2007 and 2006, respectively, on care for illegal immigrants. The costs do not include care given after a patient is considered stable.
Pivirotto estimates UMC has seen a 50 percent increase in illegal immigrant patients this year, partly because of the many rollovers of vehicles transporting them in the state. He expects the hospital to spend even more on patient care for foreign nationals in 2008.
The government has not given hospitals any guidance on what to do with illegal immigrants. It is up to the hospitals to decide the best practice, said Bill Pike, director of public policy and community affairs for Carondelet Health Network, the parent of Tucson's St. Joseph's and St. Mary's hospitals.
Pivirotto estimates UMC transfers about 50 patients a year to their home countries, the majority to Mexico. UMC has been transporting patients for about 20 years, he said.
Pike estimates Carondelet's two Tucson hospitals send fewer than a dozen patients a year to their countries of origin, and knows only of two patients sent from St. Mary's so far this year.
Tucson Medical Center sends five or six patients a year, said spokesman Mike Letson.
Hospitals are not required to ask patients about their immigration status and do not automatically turn patients over to border authorities.
Rich Polheber, CEO of Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales, said only patients arrested by Border Patrol agents are turned over. And that's after their care is concluded.
"(The Border Patrol) will never say they are their patients," he said. "If (the patients) are under arrest, (the Border Patrol has) to pay for them."
Instead, Polheber said, he will sometimes see Border Patrol agents waiting outside the hospital entrance for a specific patient. But it doesn't happen often. If patients can leave on their own, they usually just walk out the door.
Pivirotto said the same thing happens at UMC because agents seem interested only in finding out who the driver was when there is a rollover with illegal immigrants. In most cases, patients are allowed to walk away.
UMC's Richardson said that to send a patient to another country, the hospital has to receive permission from that country's consulate and also locate adequate care for the patient. Until that process has been completed, a patient can't be discharged.
Letson said that at TMC, no patients will be transported to another country without their consent.
How quickly those patients leave for their home country depends on the hospital's relationship with that country.
Barbara Felix, UMC's international patient services coordinator, said that if a patient can be transported to northern Mexico, the discharge plan can be started almost immediately. Her husband, a retired doctor from Hermosillo, Son., can often direct her to a former colleague who can care for the ill patient. She has also established relationships with many of Mexico's hospitals and the Mexican consulate in Tucson, which makes it easier to get permission to transport a patient and design a discharge plan.
However, Felix said she is seeing more patients from Guatemala, El Salvador and Ecuador, where she has not established professional relationships.
Felix is arranging for UMC's first transport of a Salvadoran patient, one of three sent to the hospital after a crash near Florence on Aug. 7. The other two patients have gotten better and have left on their own, but because of the extent of his brain damage, UMC is unable to release him.
A family member from the East Coast has come to be with him, and the man's mother, who is in El Salvador, recognized his picture from a broadcast about the crash in her country. He is still at UMC while the Salvadoran consulate completes the paperwork that would allow him to be taken to a hospital in El Salvador. It may be another week before he leaves, UMC's Riley said.
Polheber, the CEO of Holy Cross in Nogales, is also a member of the health services committee of the Arizona-Mexico Commission, which is a collaboration between Arizona and Mexico. Through the commission, Polheber has organized training in Arizona for nurses and doctors from Mexico and vice versa.
"The Arizona-Mexico Commission serves as developing linkages and friendships when you need to work on the transfer piece," Polheber said. "We, particularly in our hospital here, have developed a relationship with Hospital General across the border."
Both Polheber and Pivirotto expressed a desire to transfer patients to hospitals where the patient can receive advanced care. For both hospitals, that includes donating equipment and services that will enhance the level of medical care provided.
"I think it would be helpful if there was a methodology and agreement developed between Mexico and the United States on how patients would be transferred," Polheber said. "It would be nice to say, 'Lets develop a system.' At this point everyone is doing the best they can."
With or without federal guidance or funds, Tucson-area hospital administrators say they will continue to care for everyone who needs care and will continue to transport patients across the border, when appropriate.
"Section 1011 won't change our actions," Carondelet's Pike said. "It will just create a bigger financial strain."
August 27, 2008
Coincidence? Laurel schools see attendance drop
By BRITTANY BROWN
More than 180 students were absent from Laurel schools Tuesday, following a Monday-morning raid at a Howard Industries plant in Laurel that detained 595 suspected illegal workers.
Superintendent Glenn McGee released a prepared statement late Tuesday saying the day's attendance was 2,822 students. The district's total enrollment this year is 3,005 students.
"There has been a steady drop in attendance over the past few school days, but the Laurel School District cannot, at this time, ascertain that the drop was due to the Department of Homeland Security Immigration Customs Enforcement raids at Howard Industries," he said in the prepared statement.
McGee's statement also said school officials are following the absentee policy and contacting parents to determine the cause of absence.
If contact cannot be made and students continue to miss school, he said officials will visit students' homes.
"District employees have worked diligently today to make contact with families," he said.
"Those employees have made contact with many families to determine their needs and will notify the local social service agency if necessary."
Julia Bryan, public information officer with the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said the state could become involved with children whose parents or guardians were detained.
"If we took these children into custody would depend on whether they're illegal or legal citizens," she said.
Bryan said DHS officials cannot confirm any intake of these children.
"In this particular case, we can't speak to any specific instance of children coming into our custody," she said.
"It is, however, the function of DHS to investigate and work with law enforcement to ensure the safety of children."
Officials in the Jones County School District did not return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment.
Officials at Petal, Hattiesburg, Forrest County, Lamar County and Forrest County Agricultural High schools said they do not have students whose parents or guardians were detained in the raid.
"We found no students at our schools whose parents or guardians work at Howard Industries," said Debbie Burt, superintendent for Forrest County schools.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said the employees they detained Monday morning are in the country illegally.
Students, however, do not have to be U.S. citizens to attend public schools. All students are required to show two proofs of residence and a birth certificate before registering.
"The federal law prohibits schools from asking for any information regarding a student's immigration status," Burt said.
"We are not immigration agents. We are here to enroll students in our schools and educate them."
But that doesn't mean schools haven't taken proactive measures.
Burt said after Monday's raid she received a phone call at 5 p.m. from a representative with the Department of Homeland Security.
"They wanted us to be aware of what was going on," she said.
Burt said she and officials checked student information sheets to see where parents and guardians were employed.
"We worked into the night until we were satisfied that there were no students in our district involved with this," she said.
Ben Burnett, superintendent of Lamar County schools, said even if students whose parents or guardians have been detained are found attending school in the district, the school has no authority in the situation.
"I don't see where the school would have a role except continuing to educate the child," he said.
Lamar County has seen an increase in Hispanic students over the past five years, with the majority living in the Oak Grove area.
About 200 students in the county speak English as their second language, said Peggy Williams, director of instruction for Lamar County schools.
Williams, who works with the English as a Second Language program, said a teacher called her Sunday night with concerns from Hispanic parents that a raid was coming to the schools Monday.
"Somehow word had gotten out in the community that Immigration was in the area," Williams said. "But I never expected officials to come to the school. They won't target children."
August 27, 2008
Factory had tension between union, immigrants
By HOLBROOK MOHR Associated Press Writer
Union bosses in this region of rural Mississippi have long grumbled that the largest factories here hire illegal immigrants, and that the immigrants were starting to get more overtime and supervisory positions.
Friction between the union and immigrant workers, along with a tipoff at an electrical manufacturing plant, boiled over this week into the biggest workplace immigration raid in the nation's history.
When the first of the 595 suspected illegal immigrants was taken into custody Monday, some fellow workers broke into applause. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the investigation started three years ago after agents received a tip from a union member.
In interviews with The Associated Press, both union members and immigrants spoke of a simmering tension. At least one immigrant said scare tactics were used to pressure people to join the union.
Union members said they resented immigrants, who were often allowed to work as much as 40 hours of overtime a week when other workers were discouraged from doing so. All declined to give their names, saying they feared for their jobs.
Howard Industries, which makes dozens of products from electrical transformers to medical supplies, is in Mississippi's Pine Belt region, an area known for commercial timber and chicken-processing plants.
Robert Shaffer, head of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, said Wednesday that members have long complained that companies in southern Mississippi hire illegal immigrants.
"Jackson, Hattiesburg, Laurel and all areas along the coast, it's a little Mexico," Shaffer said. "I'm not against people trying to make living. I have a compassion for those folks. But at the same time, the taxpayers of Mississippi shouldn't be subsidizing a plant that won't even hire their own workers."
In 2002, Mississippi lawmakers approved a $31.5 million, taxpayer-backed incentive plan for Howard Industries to expand. The company, with 4,000 workers, is the largest employer in Jones County, which includes Laurel.
About 2,600 of Howard Industries' workers are in the union. Shaffer said he did not know whether any of those picked up in the raid were union members, or if nonunion workers were offered overtime while union workers were not.
Shaffer said offering immigrant workers union membership would depend on the situation, but he doubted it could be done if immigrants were in the country illegally.
Those detained in the raid came from Brazil, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru.
Contacted Wednesday, Howard Industries referred reporters to the statement it issued Monday, which said the company "runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration status of all applicants for its jobs. It is company policy that it hires only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants."
No executives were detained in Monday's raid, but a spokeswoman said the raid was just the first part of an ongoing investigation.
A 30-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has worked at the transformer plant for three years said union representatives pressured immigrants to join the union, sometimes visiting their homes, offering gifts such as shirts and indicating that if they joined the union they would make more money.
The immigrant, who was not caught in the raid because he works the night shift, spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Jose, because he was concerned about being detained.
"The union uses the tactic of saying immigration was coming and the members of the union would not be taken," he said through a translator.
Jose said he did not join the union because he wasn't convinced it would come to his side if he were detained, and he felt his dues would not be returned.
At least eight of the workers caught in the raid face criminal charges for allegedly using false Social Security and residency identification.
On Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up outside the plant to apply for jobs as news of the raid spread. A billboard had gone up last week, before the raid, saying the company was hiring.
"I need a job and got kids. I heard that they need some help now," said Willie Keys, 20, who applied Wednesday. "All them Mexicans got fired because they didn't have a pass ... All these businesses have been taking Americans' jobs."
The unemployment rate in Jones County was 6.5 percent in July, slightly higher than the national rate of 6 percent but below the state's 8.5 percent rate.
William Gunther, an economics professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said Mississippi has a labor shortage because people aren't moving there, which could explain why companies might hire illegal immigrants.
"That leaves businesses with a serious problem," he said. "That doesn't justify, but it certainly explains why they might be hiring individuals who show up and say, 'I'll work for you.'"
He said businesses could face higher wage costs and consumers could face higher costs for products and services if immigrants are taken out of the economy.
Ruben Castro, who owns La Fiesta Brava Mexican restaurant, is already seeing the effects. He had to bring in workers from a store in another town because he was so short-handed after the raid, when five other Mexican restaurants in Laurel closed because employees were afraid to come to work.
"It hurts the community," he said, because the town will lose 600 people who frequented stores like Wal-Mart and paid sales taxes.
Associated Press writers Shelia Byrd and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson and Eileen Sullivan in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Businesses Cite a Catch-22 After Miss. Immigration Raid
By Spencer S. Hsu, Alejandro Lazo and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 28, 2008; A01
The arrests this week of nearly 600 immigrant workers at a manufacturing plant in Laurel, Miss., are fueling a national debate over a federal system to check new hires' work documents, a program whose expansion the Bush administration has made a cornerstone of its fight against illegal immigration.
In what they called the largest immigration sweep at a single site in U.S. history, federal agents raided a Howard Industries electrical transformer plant Monday despite the fact that the company last year joined the work eligibility system, called E-Verify.
The White House has called the program a key weapon against illegal hiring, proposing to expand it to nearly 200,000 government contractors this fall, covering about 4 million U.S. workers. Thirteen state legislatures have enacted similar legislation, and Congress is debating whether to extend E-Verify this fall.
Major U.S. employers assailed the expanding crackdown, saying it creates a Catch-22. If businesses fail to enroll in E-Verify, they run the risk of a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said. But if they sign up, they face added costs, labor disruptions and discrimination complaints -- as well as the risk that flaws in the program won't stop all illegal hiring or prevent government raids, they said.
"I think it's a mistake on the part of a company to think that simply because they [enroll] that they are going to be protected from any kind of government audit or raid," said Myles Gladstone, vice president of Miller & Long, of Bethesda, a major construction firm based in the Washington area.
At issue is a program that is supposed to help employers abide by laws that bar the hiring of illegal immigrants. E-Verify allows companies to check federal Social Security and immigration databases to determine whether an employee is authorized to work.
However, a key weakness in E-Verify is that while it can determine whether a Social Security number presented by a worker is valid, it often cannot determine whether the number belongs to the applicant. Many workers try to evade detection by using another person's identification.
That was allegedly the case Monday, when dozens of U.S. agents sealed entrances to Howard Industries' Mississippi plant, stopping production while they executed a criminal search warrant for evidence related to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security documents and other crimes. A civil search warrant for illegal immigrants was also executed, turning up suspect workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Germany, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, the government alleged.
About 475 workers were sent to a detention center in Jena, La., for deportation; 106 were released for humanitarian reasons to tend to a child or a medical condition pending court appearances; nine were juveniles transferred to a refugee resettlement agency, and eight face charges of criminal identity theft.
A spokeswoman for ICE noted the investigation began two years ago, before Howard joined E-Verify.
In its only comment on the raid, Howard Industries released a statement saying: "Howard Industries runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration status of all applicants for jobs. It is company policy that it hires only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants."
The circumstances echoed a December 2006 raid on six plants operated by meat processor Swift & Co., now JBS Swift & Co., after which the company reported $53 million in losses, even though it was a longtime participant in the record-checking system.
Bush officials say such attacks are a smokescreen by industry groups, who oppose the program because it works. They note that many opponents embraced E-Verify last year, when they expected it to have less bite as part of a broad overhaul that would have legalized many immigrant workers.
But one of the lessons of last year's failed immigration legislation is that the American public wants to see tougher enforcement at U.S. workplaces before it will expand immigration or legalize those in the country unlawfully, said Stewart A. Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security.
"We have to have strong enforcement if we're ever to have a chance for comprehensive reform," Baker said.
Baker said the government is fixing E-Verify's flaws as it prepares to expand the initiative. Bush officials in early June proposed to triple the number of companies in the program, mandating participation by 169,000 federal contractors and requiring them for the first time to verify the eligibility of existing employees, not just new hires.
Enrollment in E-Verify has grown from 3,000 companies to 82,000 since it was expanded nationwide in 2003, but participation remains voluntary and covers 1 percent of an estimated 6 million U.S. employers and about 11 percent of annual hiring.
The proposed changes would double E-Verify's reach, covering more than 20 percent of U.S. hiring, federal officials said.
Business groups call the proposal an election-year power play that goes far beyond what Congress intended in 1996 when it created the voluntary system.
Although the government estimated the change will cover about 3 percent of the 153 million-member U.S. workforce, companies say the impact would be far greater, as contractors and subcontractors with even a small piece of the $430 billion that the federal government awards each year would need to review their payrolls. The U.S. chamber claims the rule would cost $10 billion to implement, 100 times the government's estimate.
"Without very significant changes, we would look at all options to stop a final rule, including a court challenge," said Randel K. Johnson, vice president and spokesman for the U.S. chamber.
Critics also say that E-Verify is not accurate enough, which could lead to discrimination against legal, foreign-born workers. Sorting out problems also threatens to swamp already overburdened Social Security administration offices that have their hands full tending to other work.
About 4.1 percent of 435 million Social Security records used by E-Verify contain errors -- or 17.8 million records -- the agency's Office of the Inspector General stated in June 2007. The system wrongly rejected foreign-born U.S. citizens 9.8 percent of the time in the first half of 2007, and it erroneously flagged noncitizens who had been authorized to work 1.4 percent of the time, a study last year found.
Federal officials insist that E-Verify is ready for prime time. In early 2007, 94.2 percent of workers were automatically verified. Another half-percent were mistakenly rejected, but workers were eventually able to clear up the problem, usually within two days. The remaining 5.3 percent of workers walked away, which officials said suggested that they were illegal.
The system has fixed errors that arose when workers enter the country legally or become citizens without notifying Social Security. Many remaining mistakes involve people who fail to report name changes after marriage or divorce.
Homeland Security has begun requiring workers who are permanent residents or noncitizens to present photo IDs that can be compared with their images in federal records. However, E-Verify lacks a similar check for people posing as citizens. As a result the system is feeding a black market for selling Social Security numbers, some of them stolen, business owners said.
"I think the general public thinks it's an answer-all to this whole illegal-worker-identity theft problem and it's not," said Bernie Kohl Jr., owner of Angelica Nurseries in Kennedyville, Md.
Kohl said E-Verify also creates a temptation for employers to discriminate against hiring legal immigrants because they don't want to hassle with trying to sort out the system's mistakes.
Congress still must decide whether to extend E-Verify beyond November. While the House voted 407 to 2 to extend it for five years, it required Homeland Security to pay the bills for the increased workload on Social Security and ordered new studies about its effectiveness. The Senate has yet to vote. Meanwhile, 13 states require some use of E-Verify, while Illinois has voted to bar it, creating a patchwork of laws likely to grow next year. Locally, Virginia lawmakers last winter rejected an attempt to mandate participation in E-Verify; no requirement exists in Maryland and the District.
August 22, 2008
Immigration agency vows more enforcement
By AMY TAXIN Associated Press Writer
Federal immigration officials vowed Friday to intensify efforts to track down illegal immigrants after scrapping a trial "self-deportation" program that attracted only eight volunteers.
Though the 2 1/2-week effort produced few volunteer deportees among illegal immigrants who are under court orders to leave the country, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said his agency will arrest more of them this year than last — and still more next year as more agents are assigned.
"We are going to continue our enforcement of immigration law whether it is convenient for people, or whether it's not convenient," Jim Hayes, ICE's acting director of detention and removal operations, told reporters.
"Congress has mandated that we enforce these laws and that is what we intend to do," he said.
Immigrant advocates accused ICE of using the failure of the "Scheduled Departure" program to justify raids that have caused many illegal immigrants to live in fear of a pre-dawn knock on the door. They ridiculed the self-deportation program, saying it gave people no incentive to surrender.
"It seems to me ICE used this as nothing more than a publicity ploy as a means to justify their harsh enforcement of immigration law," said Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Kuck said he supports enforcement but that ICE could handle cases in a gentler way after arresting people at home. Instead of jailing them, for example, they could allow them to wear ankle bracelets while preparing to depart.
The self-deportation pilot program gave illegal immigrants up to 90 days to leave the country and was intended to quell criticism that its enforcement is heavy-handed and disruptive to families. Critics noted that those who participates were barred from returning to the United States for as long as a decade.
The program applied to only about 457,000 of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants nationwide. It was open only to those who have ignored judicial orders to leave the country but have no criminal record.
The program was offered in five cities: Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Phoenix, San Diego and Santa Ana. ICE estimates that 30,000 eligible immigrants live in those areas.
ICE has been steadily expanding the number of agents charged with finding fugitive illegal immigrants. Its fugitive operation teams made more than 30,000 arrests during the last fiscal year, nearly double from the previous 12-month period.
Hayes said that during the time the self-deportation program was going on, the teams made 1,300 arrests.
Critics say ICE often arrests others who just happen to be at home when agents come looking for fugitives. About 31 percent of immigrants arrested by the teams last year had no order to leave the country or criminal record.
ICE has also been increasingly raiding workplaces, including nearly 400 people in May at an Iowa meatpacking plant, the largest single-site raid in U.S. history.
The eight volunteers include an Estonian man in Phoenix, a Guatemalan man and Indian couple in Chicago, a Salvadoran man in Charlotte, a Mexican woman in San Diego and a Guatemalan man and Lebanese man in Santa Ana, according to ICE.
ICE spent $41,000 to advertise the program. Hayes said the government saved money because the cost of detaining the eight who turned themselves in would have been $54,000.
Immigration Reforms Result in Fewer Judges, More Prosecutors
By Sandra Hernandez
Daily Journal Staff Writer
This article appears on Page 1
When Scott Laurent was named an immigration judge in 2007, his selection coincided with an ambitious federal plan to revamp the nation's troubled immigration courts.
The initiative called for additional funding to help the immigration bench deal with a crushing caseload that often included life-or-death asylum claims.
But nearly two years after then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales introduced the reforms, much of the plan remains on paper.
Fewer judges are on the bench today than in August 2006, when Gonzales launched the 22-point initiative.
This year's annual training conference for judges was canceled because of budget problems.
And prospective new judges, such as Laurent, who is assigned to a Lancaster immigration court, have yet to hear a single case. Their appointments are stalled by budget woes and the scandal over the politicized hiring of immigration judges.
"If the department doesn't pay closer attention to immigration courts, the courts are in danger of collapsing under the weight of the caseload," said a Department of Justice official, not speaking on behalf of the department.
Now, some people are asking why Gonzales' 2006 plan to increase court funding led to fewer resources, while agencies charged with prosecuting immigrants received big budget increases, creating serious due process concerns.
The lopsided funding has created serious problems, say critics, who fear judges face new backlogs while prosecutors ramp up criminal charges.
"The core issue here is due process," said Crystal Williams, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade group that represents some 10,000 attorneys.
"We've seen a tremendous uptick in enforcement spending and no uptick in court spending," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a San Jose Democrat who chairs the House immigration subcommittee.
Between 2006 and 2008, the budget for Immigration and Customs Enforcement legal proceedings unit, composed of attorneys who prosecute cases in immigration court, increased 62 percent. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice nearly doubled the ranks of government attorneys assigned to litigate deportation or detention orders in federal circuit courts.
Known as the Office of Immigration Litigation, the unit's number of attorneys increased from 123 in July 2006, to 245 in July 2008, according to Justice Department records. That number is expected to hit 300 in the coming year.
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said it does not track the immigration litigation unit's budget. However, the Justice Department's budget requests submitted to Congress and available online indicate base funding for immigration litigation increased from $26.1 million in 2006, to $56.8 million in 2008.
Yet, if prosecutors saw their budgets double, the money was slow in coming to the courts.
Between 2006 and 2008, funding for the immigration courts and its appellate division, called the Board of Immigration Review, increased a mere 13 percent. During that time, the number of sitting immigration judges not only failed to increase, it fell by one, dropping from 218 in Aug. 5, 2006, to 217 on Aug. 18, 2008.
"Under the plan, we were promised additional resources," said Dana L. Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and president of the judges' union. "Yet none of those resources have been forthcoming.
"To the contrary, we are getting less. We are losing resources at a time when the caseloads continue to increase and the complexity of the cases is increasing exponentially."
The lack of resources is not disputed.
In 2006, Gonzales acknowledged the immigration courts were in trouble after a flurry of federal circuit courts decisions rebuked immigration judges for intemperate behavior and flawed rulings.
Gonzales responded by promising money, and unveiling his plan that called for performance reviews for judges, a court handbook, more training, new courtroom technology and additional staff.
In a March 2007 speech to the Judicial Conference in Washington D.C., Gonzales announced the money was in the pipeline.
"I am pleased to report that in our fiscal 2007 appropriation Congress has approved our request for 120 additional immigration judges, staff attorneys and law clerk positions," Gonzales told the federal judges.
And he promised more judges would be hired the following year.
That help never arrived.
Congress approved the extra funding for 20 new judges and 100 staff members for fiscal 2007, but the funding was ultimately used for other things, officials said.
"Just as the fiscal year 2007 budget was approved in December 2006, the Justice Department imposed a hiring freeze for immigration judges until new hiring procedures could be adopted," said Susan Eastwood, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which also oversees the hiring of judges.
"They never filled the positions," said David Burnham, co-director of Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan group.
The TRAC report found Gonzales' plan resulted in fewer judges handling more cases and having less time to decide cases often involving asylum claims.
The hiring freeze was in response to the scandal involving the illegal political hiring of immigration judges with strong Republican Party credentials but little or no immigration experience.
The scandal became public in May 2007, after Monica M. Goodling, a Justice Department official who served as liaison to the White House, told Congress she considered politics when recommending candidates for immigration judge positions.
Immigration judges and the members of the Board of Immigration Review are career civil servants, not political appointees.
Last month, an inspector general's report found Goodling and other Justice Department officials broke the law and caused long delays in appointing immigration judge when they nominated candidates with strong party ties.
Among those candidates recommended by the White House was Garry Malphrus, a former staff member to a Republican senator from South Carolina and a member of the Bush-Cheney Florida recount team in 2000, who had no immigration experience.
"Malphrus did not submit an application to become an immigration judge and was never formally interviewed," the inspector general's report said.
Nontheless, he was appointed to the bench in March 2005 and promoted to the Board of Immigration Review this month.
At least one candidate nominated by the White House was so questionable he was rejected for the post. The candidate, a big GOP donor, was dropped after he "used profanity during the interview, acted abrasively and, when asked what his greatest weakness was, responded 'blondes,'" according to the inspector general's report.
The ensuing scandal and hiring freeze fueled the crisis at the immigration courts.
The new political litmus test led to "delays in appointing immigration judges, which increased the burden on the immigration courts that were already experiencing an increased workload," the report found.
New jobs went unfilled, and new vacancies were created as judges retired or quit.
At the same time, immigration agents ramped up enforcement of existing immigration laws, creating new cases for the immigration courts.
Last year, 334,000 cases were filed in immigration court.
"This means greater delays in a system that is already saddled with a lot of problems," said David Martin, former general counsel to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a law professor at University of Virginia School of Law.
Among the courts hardest hit is Los Angeles, considered the busiest court in the nation in 2007.
Twenty-five judges had 38,000 cases pending by July 2008, according to the Justice Department.
"I've never seen it this bad," said Niels Frenzen, a professor at University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, who oversees the immigration clinic.
"It's not that the system is moving slowly, it feels as if it's grinding to a halt," Frenzen said. "I've known some of the judges for more than a decade, and you hear them in open court saying they are at their wits' end."
Among those who struggled was Gilbert T. Gembacz, a Los Angeles immigration judge who retired in June, after nearly a decade on the bench.
"On average, everyone handles in excess of 1,000-plus cases at any given time," Gembacz said.
"We are playing calendar roulette," Gembacz said. "We may schedule five to eight cases in the morning and another five to eight cases in the afternoon. Usually, only two of those cases are ready to go, but the question is what happens if they all move forward?"
The crisis has pushed many judges to the edge, adopting time-saving measures rarely seen in other courtrooms.
At the Lancaster immigration court, housed inside the Mira Loma Detention Center, Judge William J. Nickerson Jr. begins most days facing a group of immigrants clad in blue uniforms. Most of the men can't afford an attorney. Unlike criminal defendants, immigration detainees are not assigned public defenders because the proceedings are considered civil.
Nickerson begins by conducting an en masse rights advisory presentation to the dozen men sitting before him. A translator simultaneously speaks in Spanish, often drowning out the judge's words.
The presentation is intended to inform immigrants of the basic rules, including the evidentiary rules of the court and their right of appeal.
At times, some of the dozen immigrants lean forward, straining to hear Nickerson and the translator, whose words are nearly inaudible. Some of the men raise their hand and ask questions, while others appear confused.
Nickerson is one of two judges at the Lancaster court. More than 8,500 cases were filed before them in 2007.
The Lancaster court's caseload is expected to increase this year as the number of detainees increases from 800 to 1,400, as part of a planned expansion at the facility.
Help is expected to arrive this month when Laurent finally takes the bench. A former immigration trial attorney, he was selected last August, but his appointment stalled because of a rigorous new application, evaluation and interview process that can take a year, according to the Justice Department.
The immigration courts' troubles are hardest on detained immigrants, some of whom are waging life-or-death battles to stay in the United States.
"This puts tremendous pressure on detained immigrants to give up their cases, especially if you are sitting in an overcrowded facility with poor health care," Frenzen said.
He said one client sat in an immigration detention center two years, while the immigrant's case wound its way through the immigration courts.
Similar accounts are offered by some of the immigrants once held at the San Pedro facility that abruptly closed last year. Many of those immigrants spent more than a year in detention while their cases were rescheduled or moved to new court venues.
Frenzen said such delays could leave immigrants and families in a dangerous kind of limbo.
"Many of our clients have very strong claims, and in some cases, the delays have endangered the lives of family members," Frenzen said. "We have clients who have spouses and children in hiding. So the delays and our inability to win relief means we can't get those family members out of the country.”
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