Immigration trackers want transparency, better data management; judges press for autonomy

Immigration

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — With a new director to head the nation’s immigration courts, a research group that closely tracks immigration cases tells Border Report they are hoping for more transparency and better data management from the incoming administration.

The Justice Department announced that Jean King on Sunday will take over the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the federal division that is under DOJ that oversees all U.S. immigration courts. King has been picked as the chief administrative law judge in EOIR’s Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer, according to a DOJ memo released Wednesday.

King will replace former EIOR Director James McHenry, whose policies and tactics during the Trump administration often came under fire by House Democrats and migrant advocates.

King is a former EOIR general counsel with immigration law experience, which is a stark contrast from McHenry, who was a close ally of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and who never has been an immigration judge.

The fact that McHenry had continued leading EOIR after President Joe Biden took over the White House had raised complaints, Politico reported.

U.S. Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor, who was president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and who Biden recently tapped as the top attorney for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, testified last January before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship about McHenry’s credentials and management style. She testified then that her organization wanted separation from the Justice Department because “conflict and tension” pervade throughout the immigration court system because it falls under the umbrella of a law-enforcement agency.

Austin Kocher, a professor with Syracuse University and a senior researcher with the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks all of the immigration cases nationwide, said there were management issues under McHenry and he did not respond to the university’s repeated concerns.

“The main bulk of inaccuracies and records going missing concerned asylum applicants who were facing deportation and have applied for asylum in the immigration court system,” Kocher told Border Report.

Data from asylum cases, in particular, often went missing and got so bad by November 2019 that TRAC officials sent McHenry a letter pointing out issues they were seeing. But he said they were ignored.

Austin Kocher is a researcher with TRAC (Courtesy Photo)

“They initially ignored us, then stonewalled us and then eventually dismissed the issues outright,” Kocher said.

At one point it got so bad that TRAC for several months had to pull its asylum-case tracking tool bar offline, which is used by thousands of immigration lawyers, advocates and journalists.

He said EOIR even supplied the U.S. Supreme Court with inaccurate immigration data, which it had to walk back.

“The real problem is the American people and policymakers and American public should know and have a sense of how many people are applying for asylum relief and the outcomes of those cases. It’s really just a fundamental transparency and accountability issue and with those records missing it was presenting a very incomplete picture and potentially undermining the agency’s ability to monitor itself,” Kocher said.

The American people and policymakers and American public should know and have a sense of how many people are applying for asylum relief.”

Austin Kocher TRAC researcher

TRAC tracks a variety of immigration-related data, including case backlogs, which currently total 1.29 million pending immigration cases nationwide. They also track detentions by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, removals by ICE agents, deportations filed, and Border Patrol arrests.

The COVID-19 pandemic and border travel restrictions suspended immigration asylum applications on the border, but immigration cases are still proceeding in the interior, and Kocher said the case backlogs are piling up every day.

Meantime, ICE agents are still targeting for removal thousands living in the United States without proper documentation

With a new leader, Kocher is hopeful that the agency will be more consistent with its data management and more receptive to outside input.

“In this case, with the EOIR it was really unfortunate just how hostile Director McHenry was and we certainly hope the incoming director will be more open to a frank conversation and to just understand we have a shared interest in fixing issues,” he said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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