In March 2002, the Board expanded its use of single-member affirmances without opinions (AWOs) to cases involving asylum, withholding of removal and relief under the Convention Against Torture. This expansion, which followed the Attorney General’s February 2002 announcement of upcoming changes to the Board, was made by the Board under existing streamlining authority – authority that had been included in regulations issued in October 1999.These are some sad results, and show how far due process rights of immigrants were eroded by the Ashcroft initiatives.
Later in 2002, the Department of Justice issued new “streamlining” regulations. These regulatory changes also expanded the use of AWOs and brief orders – and made single-member decisions the rule, rather than the exception. Prior to the changes made in 2002, the Board typically decided cases by three-member panels and granted about 25% of these appeals. But this rate dropped dramatically. A law firm working with Human Rights First analyzed about 1,400 asylum, withholding of removal, and Convention Against Torture cases decided by the Board in September 2002. In approximately 80% of these cases, a single Board member affirmed the decision of the immigration judge in a one-sentence opinion. Moreover, the Board granted asylum, withholding of removal, or Convention Against Torture relief in less than 5% of these cases.
In a February 2005 report, the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found a dramatic drop in granting asylum appeals – from about 24% to 2-4% in expedited removal cases – and concluded that “[s]tatistically, it is highly unlikely that any asylum-seeker denied by an immigration judge will find protection by appealing to the BIA.”
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Walker noted that a single immigration judge “has to dispose of 1,400 cases a year, or nearly twenty-seven cases a week, or more than five each business day, simply to stay abreast of his docket” and that each board member “must dispose of nearly 4000 cases a year – or about 80 a week – a virtually impossible task.Among other things, HRF recommends that the “streamlining” procedures be reversed, that more immigration judges and court staff be hired and trained, and more pro bono work be encouraged and facilitated. This summary report highlights again how strung out the immigration courts are—they need some time in rehab to rest and recuperate in order to provide a fair, workable system for adjudicating immigration cases.