National Press Club

Beef up immigration courts, judges urge at Newsmaker

August 27, 2014 | By Aisha Chowdhry |

Moderator Jamie  Horwitz, of NPC's Newsmaker Committee, introduces Judges Denise Noonan Slavin (left) and Dana Leigh Marks at Newsmaker

Moderator Jamie Horwitz, of NPC's Newsmaker Committee, introduces Judges Denise Noonan Slavin (left) and Dana Leigh Marks at Newsmaker

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Two federal judges, speaking in their capacity as leaders of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), called for more resources for immigration courts at a National Press Club Newsmaker news conference Aug. 17.

They also called for the creation of an independent immigration court under Article 1 of the U.S.constitution.

Dana Leigh Marks, a federal administrative judge in San Francisco, spoke passionately about her concerns over immigration adjudication and recognized that the issues immigration judges are dealing with need to be addressed in order to create a more efficient system. Marks referred to the immigration courts as the “forgotten stepchild of the U.S. Department of Justice.”

“Most members of the public do not have a clue about the realities of our world,” Marks said. “We have been resource-starved for decades.”

Marks vouched for an independent immigration court system. “We need an independent court system which stands on its own to provide transparency to the American public as to what we do, how fast we do it, and what our funding needs are in order to meet the task,” she said.

In the immigration court system, unlike other court proceedings, defendants do not necessarily get the right to appoint a counsel, she pointed out.

“Last fiscal year, over 40% of respondents were unrepresented, a figure which rose to 85% if only detained dockets are considered,” Marks said.

Under the current system, she added, there is no statute of limitations, which could lead to the immigration court judges reviewing cases that are decades old. Marks also noted there are only 227 field immigration judges in the country, handling over 375,000 pending cases.

“I personally have over 2,400 pending cases," Marks said. "It takes about 15 months for the first arraignment-type hearing in my courtroom, and after that anywhere from three-and-a-half to four years before the merits hearing is held.”

Marks also believes the financial needs of the immigration courts are not a priority. 1.7% of the 18 billion dollars annually allocated to immigration law enforcement is not adequate, she said.

The other speaker at the news conference, Denise Noonan Slavin, a Miami-based administrative judge who hears cases in a federal detention center, said the recent surge of unaccompanied children has highlighted the severity of funding.

“The placement of an immigration court in a law enforcement agency also leads to funding issues,” Slavin said.

Despite the great work being done, Marks said she believes the morale at the courts is low. “There is a solution, but it will not be quick and not be cheap,” she said. “Rather than knee-jerk solution to the present crisis, we must take this opportunity to look at the structural flaws that have allowed this crisis to impact the immigration courts so adversely.”

Added Slavin: “Immigration courts are the piece of the puzzle that just doesn’t fit into law enforcement framework.”

Normally, federal immigration judges are barred from speaking publicly on issues that affect their courts. But Marks and Slavin spoke as representatives of NAIJ, which Marks serves as president and Slavin as executive vice president.