A long, slow slog towards accountability
Published on September 26, 2021 by Brooke Bischoff
Admin

First, I want to say thank you. After just one fundraising email to only family and friends, we've received support to file almost $400 worth of FOIA requests to bring deportation decisions into the public light. Without that funding, these decisions would remain locked away in whatever cabinet they're filed into, with no opportunity for accountability.

As of today, we've submitted ten FOIA requests and paid out $399 in FOIA fees to the U.S. government to bring what seems a small amount of data into the public domain. We knew going into this that FOIAs move at the speed of snails, and I am personally quite pleased that given the inherent lethargy of the FOIA process, COVID, and the fact that this is currently a super small volunteer project we have been as successful as we have. And we're not even close to done yet! We have more FOIAs pending and more on the radar. In fact, I would venture to guess that the EOIR FOIA liason will soon be sick of my e-mails.

WHAT WE'VE BEEN UP TO


1. A basic accounting of who is on the immigration bench.

Immigration judges occupy a kind of liminal space of power since they're not "real" judges (as in, they are not appointed to an independent judiciary) and are hired by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Office of the Chief Immigration Judge. New judges are being hired and appointed, and judges are often moved around in accordance with duty assignments.

We FOIA'd a list of all currently employed immigration judges including current court location, date of hire, number of cases decided since hiring, and number of decisions appealed since hiring.

Why does this information matter?
Our main goal at DEAP is to shine a light into the deep, dark depths of immigration decisions in order to hold the system - including judges - accountable for following the minimum standards of due process each person in deportation proceedings deserves and is entitled to. That starts with knowing exactly who is sitting on the immigration bench and how many people - how many lives - have come before them in the courtroom.

Result
USCIS first referred us to their website, which lists the IJ's in a super not useful format, but eventually provided us with a spreadsheet listing.

 Any surprising findings?
  • IJ William Abbott (El Paso Detained Court) has completed the most cases, a whopping 47,177. Of those, only 1,371 were appealed. 
  • IJ Michael C. Horn (Miami) has been sitting on the bench the longest... since 1983. He's completed 22,475 cases and 3,376 of those cases have been appealed.
  • IJ Daniel Dowell (Miami) has the most appeals, with 5,718 of his 27,570 decisions being appealed.
  • The IJ with the highest percentage of appeals is IJ Kristen Piepmeier in Los Angeles - North. She was appointed March 15, 2020, and has completed 243 cases. Or those, 150 have been appealed meaning about 62% of her final decisions have been appealed since she's been on the bench. 
  • Several IJs (all with 50 or less case completions) have not had any appeals filed at all, including 8 judges at Houtson - Greenspoint Park, all of whom were appointed in 2020 and 2021.
  • Of Judges who have completed more than 50 cases, IJ Colleen Glaser-Allen (Otay Mesa - Detained), who has completed 2,398 cases since her appointment in September 13, 2020, has only been appealed 9 times, or in .0037% of cases.
  • Speaking of IJ Colleen Glaser-Allen, according to this FOIA, she has been working for 219 business days. To complete 2,398 cases, IJ Galser-Allen would have to issue 10.9 decisions every workday. Assuming she works an 8 hour day, that is more than one decision every work hour every single day... which seems pretty impossible?

2. Written Decisions of IJ Kathleen French
I'll be honest - seeing the written decisions of IJ French was on the primary reasons I even started to think about the possibility of FOIAing IJ decisions. In my personal experiences, I've found this judge to be extremely problematic and I was curious to see if the decisions in other cases matched my experiences. So as a test, I requested all written decisions from IJ Kathleen French for 01/01/2020 through 01/01/2021.

Why does this information matter?
 IJ French's Decisions were our first test balloon. Despite having submitted a billion (okay, maybe only a million) FOIAs over the years, I wasn't sure the best way to ask for IJ decisions, or how to do so in a manner that made sense. The first obvious choice was just to ask for all the decisions from a particular judge for a particular time frame. This would not only allow us to start building our decision bank, but would also allow me to see how the FOIA processed works when it comes to IJ decisions.

 Result
As a test balloon, this was pretty helpful. The FOIA response explained that they'd identified 14 written decisions issued between 01/01/2020 and 01/01/2021, but that "most of those decisions are only available in hard-copy Records of Proceedings (ROPs)," and that "EOIR will have to individually order those hard-copy ROPs from an Immigration Court or Federal Records Centers to retrieve the requested records contained therein" and that because of COVID, these requests could only be processed on an emergency bases for $25 each or $500 for all of them. Biting the bullet, I agreed to pay the $500, hoping we could raise enough money to cover the costs, but despite agreeing to the $500 fee, EOIR determined that they weren't able to produce the records even if I paid, and that they could only give me four of the fourteen records that were already available electronically for a $40 fee. I agreed and EOIR produced the four decisions from IJ Kathleen French in a single, non-searchable PDF. 

 Any surprising findings?
  • While we knew that IJ decisions are cloaked in secrecy and largely disseminated to Respondents in hard copy (which is one of the reasons we started this project), it is hard to believe that the decisions, which are - at the very least - typed, are not saved into some central database. 
  • The reason that some cases already had electronic copies of the decisions are thanks to ECAS, the new and poorly implemented electronic filing system for immigration courts, but ECAS generally only contains documents for very recently initiated cases. I also assume that cases that have been appealed and issued a briefing schedule must have an electronically available decision since the decision is included in the briefing schedule when it is issued, but these are guesses.
  • It's surprising that IJ French issued only 14 written decisions in 2020, when she's completed 1,689 since her appointment in July 2018. 
  • This isn't actually the best way to request decisions because even though I was suspicious that IJ French only made 14 written decisions in 2020, I had nothing to compare it to.
Other Completed FOIAs
Currently Pending FOIAs
WHAT'S NEXT
  • We continue to work on our website and finesse the best way to get the public as much information as possible in the easiest possible way to digest. 
  • Reviewing and tagging the decisions that have been disclosed so that you can easily sort decisions based on IJ, basis of removability, results, underlying criminal charges, etc.
  • Started in August, we decided to FOIA all written decisions issued by all IJs each month. We haven't received August's yet, but we will submit a FOIA for September's decisions on 9/30/2021. 
  • For decisions issued prior to 8/1/2021, we will continue to FOIA judge by judge to manage outgoing expenses and work that comes in. 
  • Want to vote for which IJ we should investigate next? Follow us on Twitter to vote in our polls and get realtime updates on our FOIA results. 

And again, thank you, without your generous support this would not be possible and deportation decisions would continue to be hidden from the public eye.

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