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October 21, 2014

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Computer problems lead to immigration court hassles, scrutiny on resources

The computer system for managing immigration court cases has been down for a month, causing headaches for federal judges in Las Vegas and across the country, and leading the courts to revert to antiquated technology.

The system, run by the Executive Office of Immigration Review under the Department of Justice, manages all immigration cases and connects to an online filing system and automated phone network that immigrants use to get updates on their cases.

The system went down April 12 and was still not functioning as of Tuesday.

The office has said the problem was caused by a hardware failure, and the courts’ e-Registration system is also down as a result. The phone information hotline is only current as of April 12.

“Our staff is hard at work to bring everything back up to typical function, but we do not have a timeline for a complete fix,” Executive Office for Immigration Review spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said in an email.

The glitch has caused judges to scramble to work around the problem to keep cases going.

The problem has also drawn more attention to an immigration court system that immigration attorneys and advocates call woefully underfunded. There are 366,724 pending cases, and the number has been growing steadily for years.

Immigration courts do not have court reporters, and the hearings are recorded digitally and then transcribed later if needed. With the computer system down, the judges cannot record and have resorted to using cassette tapes, according to Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

“Everything is connected to the court docketing system,” said Marks, a judge in San Francisco. “Like everything these days, more and more things are inter-connected. To open up the court docketing system about a certain case, first it has to be scheduled and then I can pull up the part that allows me to record it. The phone hotline is connected to the system too, and so it hasn’t updated since things went down a month a ago. That’s why it’s been so debilitating.”

In some cases, the system being down may delay a case, allowing an immigrant to stay in the country and provide more time to prepare an argument. In other cases, the failure of the system has been extremely frustrating for attorneys and their clients.

“It’s been a mess,” said Las Vegas immigration attorney Kathia Pereira.

“You can’t look to see where a file is in the support system, so I have a case in California and I have no clue what’s happening with it,” she said. “I filed a motion to terminate deportation, and it usually takes six months for a response. It’s been eight months and I’m sending letters to all 20 judges in California to find where the case is because I have another deadline in August.”

It is also unclear whether records are being updated when an immigrant moves, and court notices and other documents could be sent to the wrong address, Pereira said.

Someone facing deportation who is not being detained could, theoretically, miss a hearing and be deported in absentia.

The computer problems, for Judge Marks, are the “tip of the iceberg” and symptomatic of the larger problem of underfunding for the office.

A report from the Migration Policy Institute released in April found funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol increased about 300 percent between 2002 and 2013, while funding for EOIR increased 70 percent in that same period.

“I see this as a clear example of what happens when you have an organization that is resource-starved,” Marks said. “While we don’t know the details of the hardware problem and cannot be certain it had to do with lack of funding, it’s hard to believe that resources didn’t play a role. Just from common sense, if more money had been spent to maintain and update the system, to create redundancies and to bring in more modern equipment, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

For three years, the office was under a hiring freeze that only recently lifted. There are 247 immigration judges nationwide, down from a high of 272 in December 2010. Las Vegas has had two judges since 2009, when one retired and was not replaced, and the local court has 3,638 cases pending.

Pereira said the Las Vegas court probably needs five judges to meet the workload.

The courts are expected to add as many as 75 judges in the next two years if budget plans do not change, but Marks said 90 judges are eligible for retirement in the next year, and the new judges may be small bandages for a gaping wound.

“I don’t want to be a complete pessimist, but it’s too little too late,” she said.

The National Immigration Judges Association is advocating for the immigration court system to be taken out from Department of Justice purview, like every other court.

“We are legal Cinderellas, the stepchild that is ignored,” Marks said. “The DOJ is the nation’s premier law enforcement agency. Is that the proper location for a neutral court? An independent court system would provide a clearer view of what resources are needed to respond to the caseload we have.”

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