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What the House is Really Doing on Immigration Today

American women sitting in front of the capitol building
American women sitting in front of the capitol building
Georgeanne M. Usova,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel
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May 8, 2014

No one knows when, or if, House leadership will take up immigration reform.

But House appropriators are already poised to consider a bill that will immediately impact the immigration enforcement system for years to come: the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) budget for fiscal year 2015.

The bill includes funding for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR, which is responsible for conducting immigration court proceedings, appellate reviews, and administrative hearings.

Despite huge increases in immigration enforcement over the past decade, EOIR funding has not kept pace. Immigration enforcement spending grew by about 300 percent between fiscal years 2002-13, while EOIR funding grew just 70 percent in the same period, according to a recent Migration Policy Institute report.

The failure to adequately fund EOIR has created a major bottleneck in the system, slowing immigration proceedings and prolonging detention — at enormous taxpayer expense. The average wait for a hearing in immigration court is now 580 days. In order to sustain record-breaking deportation levels, the government is relying increasingly on fast-track proceedings with no judge, lawyer, or basic due process rights.

This year, the president requested $347.2 million in funding for EOIR. The bill House appropriators take up today would provide $335 million — a much-needed increase over last year’s funding level — but it’s not nearly enough to eliminate the massive 366,000 case backlog facing immigration courts. Here’s what additional funding would do:

  • Hire more immigration judges. Since fiscal year 2009 the pending caseload nationwide has grown by 42 percent, yet the number of immigration judges has grown by only around 7 percent, with about half of those eligible to retire this year. With little support staff, and only minutes to devote to each case despite the huge impact of their decisions, one judge likened the process to handling death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting. The president’s proposed budget would provide for 35 additional immigration judge teams, a fraction of what is needed, but a sizable improvement.
  • Fund a pilot program to provide counsel to children and other vulnerable individuals facing immigration court alone. No child in the United States should be in a courtroom without a lawyer. As Attorney General Eric Holder has said, “This is not who we are as a nation.” And yet, many children face immigration proceedings with no assistance, including unaccompanied minors who have fled violence in their home countries. Guaranteeing that they have access to counsel gives them a fair chance to make a case for U.S. protection. The president’s budget would expand a new pilot program to ensure that fewer children face immigration court alone.
  • Expand the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) to 12 new sites. Approximately 84 percent of those awaiting immigration hearings in detention don’t have legal representation. LOP educates immigrants in removal proceedings so that they can better understand their legal options and make more informed decisions. By providing basic information, LOP improves court efficiency, saves DHS money, and enhances due process.

Soon this bill will move to the House floor. Now is the time to tell your representative to support meaningful reforms to the immigration system through the appropriations process by fully funding immigration courts.

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