WASHINGTON – Immigration court judges will undergo periodic evaluations and additional immigration appeals judges will be hired, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced Wednesday.
Gonzales opened a review of the immigration courts, which operate as part of the Justice Department, in January after chastising some of them for "intemperate or even abusive" conduct toward asylum seekers.
"This review has left me reassured of the talent and professionalism that exists in the immigration courts and at the Board of Immigration Appeals," Gonzales said in a statement. But he found room for improvement.
The more than 200 immigration judges handle hundreds of thousands of cases each year. Some of the judges have criticized the quality of their colleagues' work and the disparaging way some judges have treated foreigners seeking to remain in this country.
Gonzales' predecessor, John Ashcroft, overhauled immigration reviews in 2002, but his changes have been highly criticized. Ashcroft's overhaul led to more asylum and other cases being decided by a single judge rather than a three-judge panel of the Bureau of Immigration Appeals. The reforms were followed by a marked increase in the number of cases later taken to regular federal appeals courts.
Gonzales declined to return to the three-judge format, but made other tweaks to Ashcroft's reforms, such as allowing for the return of a case to the immigration appeals panel if it warrants reconsideration.
Also Gonzales said the Justice Department will seek additional money in fiscal year 2008 to hire more judges and staff. He wants to add four members to the Board of Immigration Appeals and continue using temporary board members as needed.
Eleanor Acer, asylum program director for Human Rights First, praised many of the improvements, but was disappointed by Gonzales' decision not to return to three-member panels.
"We had urged DOJ to return to three-member review in asylum and similar cases — essential given the life and death stakes in these cases," Acer said.
The immigration judges recently formed a union affiliated with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which also represents Social Security judges. Denise Slavin Noonan, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said most of the proposed changes would lead to improvements, but she had some concerns about the evaluations.
The attorney general's changes include:
— Periodic reviews of the work and performance of each immigration judge and member of the Board of Immigration Appeals.
— Developing a written immigration law exam to be given to judges and appeals board members appointed after Dec. 31. The newcomers will have to pass the exam before they can decide cases.
— Improved training for judges and appeals board members.
— Reviewing a recent study of immigration judges by a Syracuse University-based research group that found great disparity in immigration judges' denial rates in asylum cases.
— Giving judges ability to sanction people in their courtroom for fraud or misconduct.
— Expanding free services for poor immigrants.