It is starting to appear the Department of Justice has chosen not to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in Pereira v. Sessions because doing so would conflict with the agency’s self-imposed deportation quotas it is placing on Immigration Judges, which go into effect October 1, 2018. The story unfolds in a series of e-mail messages obtained through FOIA and involve the interplay of two federal agencies tasked with separate responsibilities in the process of deciding whether to deport a person charged with being removable.
Much Ado About Scheduling Hearings
The basic issue raised by Pereira is that the immigration statute requires an immigration court charging document to list the date and time of the hearing. The Supreme Court said in Pereira that a Notice to Appear (commonly known by its acronym: “NTA”) that doesn’t contain the date and time “is not a notice to appear” at all, which means arguably the proceedings were invalid and unlawful from the beginning.
Imagine having to go to traffic court even though the police officer wrote your ticket on a napkin, didn’t sign it, and it didn’t tell you when and where your court would be (or what you were being charged with). You or your attorney would march into court arguing this isn’t really a ticket, so why on earth am I even here? You would easily get the proceedings thrown out, because they were started improperly.
The difference here is that unlike traffic court, immigration court can result in lifetime expulsion from the United States for individuals who may have a good reason to fear being harmed or killed if deported. And not showing up to court means an automatic order of removal.
Solving this problem would be simple. As the Supreme Court observed in Pereira:
As the Government concedes, ‘a scheduling system previously enabled DHS and the immigration court to coordinate in setting hearing dates in some cases.’ Given today’s advanced software capabilities, it is hard to imagine why DHS and immigration courts could not again work together to schedule hearings before sending notices to appear.
If the system already exists, why weren’t they already using it?
The problem results from the decision by Congress in 2003 to separate of INS into two separate agencies: (1) the immigration courts (under the umbrella of the Department of Justice; and (2) the Department of Homeland Security, which is the prosecutor in immigration court cases.
The system for scheduling hearings (called “Interactive Scheduling System” or “ISS”) is owned by the Department of Justice, so it has sole decision-making power on whether the DHS, a separate agency, can access it and schedule hearings on its own. The DOJ ended that access at some point and has never restored it. Without access to the ISS system, DHS has for years simply fudged the date and time – they issue NTAs with a line for the date and time but simply write “to be determined” on the line.
This disconnect has resulted in a number of problems, the most serious of which is that immigrants don’t know when their hearing date is, so they miss the date and get ordered removed in in absentia (as happened to the immigrant in Pereira).
The Pereira decision left the DOJ with a pretty clear command from the Supreme Court: turn your system back on so DHS can schedule hearings. Most who practice in this area thought the Department of Justice would comply. Unfortunately, they haven’t.
Despite Pereira, EOIR Vacillates on Whether to Turn on ISS
Through a series of FOIA requests it now appears the agency has decided to respond to Pereira by doing nothing.
The Pereira decision was issued on June 21, 2018. Early on June 22, 2018 the court administrator for the San Diego Immigration Court, e-mailed Rico Bartolomei Jr, the Assistant Chief Immigration Judge for that area, asking if the court should keep accepting the filing of NTAs by DHS without the date and time, despite what the Supreme court had just quite plainly just said the day before.
Bartolome responded that there had been no guidance from the DOJ, so for now they would keep accepting deficient NTAs for filing. By mid-afternoon on the 22nd, the discussion turned to whether the Department of Justice would “turn on ISS ASAP,” meaning enabling the DHS to access its scheduling system so it could file compliant notices to appear.
The answer was received that evening from Print Maggard, Deputy Chief Immigration Judge, that the decision of Director James McHenry was that “at this time we are not turning on ISS.”
By June 25, 2018 it looked like the DOJ had decided to turn the ISS system back on. But inn an e-mail Christopher Santoro, Principal Deputy Chief Immigration Judge, a substantial wrinkle, writing:
“[W]e were also told that, consistent with the benchmarks that went out with the new court performance measures, we need to get detained NTAs their first MC within 10 days of filing and non-detained NTAs their first MC within 90 days of filing. We also cannot be “full” – in other words, if DHS wants to file an NTA, there must be a slot for them to schedule it in within 10/90 days.”
Santoro was referring to the new Immigration Judge quotas going into effect on October 1, 2018. Since President Trump took office, the immigration court backlog has skyrocketed while case processing has slowed.
In response, the Attorney General has ordered draconian benchmarks which will require, among other things, that every judge in the country enter at least 700 orders per year. These measures are designed turn immigration courts into deportation machines – multiple Attorney General opinions have stripped judges of decision-making power while the agency orders more and more decisions to be made.
Relevant here, the new IJ quotas require detained hearings to be scheduled within 10 days of the prosecutor, DHS, filing the NTA with the court.
A June 25, 2018 e-mail from Mark Pasierb, chief clerk to the Immigration Court, explained that the ISS schedule system only has a certain number of slots for hearings with each judge each day. Thus, if the next ten days are “full,” allowing the DHS to access the ISS system will require it to pick a day that is beyond the DOJ’s self-imposed deportation quotas.
On June 27, 2018, Chief Immigration Judge Mary-Beth Keller sent out a timetable for when ISS would be turned on. She wrote that “effective immediately, NTAs filed at the window that do not specify the time and place of the hearing should be rejected.” She added that by July 2, 2018, the DOJ would turn the ISS system back on for non-detained cases and by July 16, 2018 for detained cases. However, that advice did not last long.
By July 11, 2018, the EOIR had decided officially to continue accepting non-compliant NTAs. Santoro e-mailed all court staff writing:
The Department has concluded that, even after Pereira, EOIR should accept Notices to Appear that do not contain the time and place of the hearing. Accordingly, effective immediately, courts should begin accepting TBD NTAs.
The DOJ Chooses Self-Imposed Deportation Quotas Over Complying With the Supreme Court.
What the June 25 Christopher Santoro e-mail reveals is that while the DOJ definitely has the power to turn on its scheduling system to comply with the Pereira decision, it does not want to, because it does not want that process (essentially ordered by the Supreme Court) to affect its new mega-deportation benchmarks that start on October 1, 2018.
The results are already being felt in Immigration Courts around the country. Without being able to access ISS, the prosecutors whose job it is to file these charging documents are just writing made-up dates or “dummy dates” on the charging documents. It’s hard to envision how the agency can get away with that; attorneys who file documents they know to be false (including having a pretend hearing date) are subject to discipline by their state bar.
More urgently, the people who receive these documents are showing up in court, sometimes within days, scheduling to travel across the country at times to attend a court hearing that was never even scheduled and is not going to take place.
Until the EOIR chooses to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in Pereira (likely after parties are forced to litigate these issues in federal court) it is not clear there is any solution to this problem on the horizon.