WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales chastised immigration judges Tuesday for "intemperate or even abusive" conduct toward people seeking asylum in the United States and ordered a comprehensive review of U.S. immigration courts.
In a sharply worded memo, Gonzales said he acted after seeing reports that immigration judges, who are Justice Department employees, produced poor-quality work and treated aliens discourteously.
"To the aliens who stand before you, you are the face of American justice. Not all will be entitled to the relief they seek. But I insist that each be treated with courtesy and respect," Gonzales said.
The nation's 215 immigration judges handled 350,000 matters last year, according to the department's Executive Office for Immigration Review. Gonzales said most judges do their job well.
But federal appellate judges in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco have recently criticized the quality and, in some cases, the sarcastic, disparaging tone of immigration judges' work in determinations of whether foreigners may remain in the United States.
Appeals courts have seen a marked increase in immigration cases since Gonzales' predecessor, John Ashcroft, changed the review process for those cases within the Justice Department in 2002.
Denise Noonan Slavin, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the problems have been confined to a handful of cases. But Slavin, a judge in Miami, said she welcomed the review.
"We think the premise of the review may be somewhat faulty, but hopefully it will allow us to get some additional resources. We work under very tight conditions," Slavin said.
Among the criticisms have been complaints that the immigration judges' work is indecipherable.
Slavin said immigration judges work without court stenographers, instead sending tapes of their proceedings to transcription services of varying quality.
One question frequently asked by judges is whether an applicant for asylum has a well-founded fear of persecution if he is sent home, Slavin said.
"I've seen that transcribed as, 'Did someone walk down the pier of persecution?"' Slavin said.