Immigration Judges and Nervous Breakdowns

November 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Joe Dierkes was burned out after 11 years as an immigration judge (IJ). His docket was at 1300 cases. It wasn’t just the workload that wore him down. Amid the routine cases—illegal workers picked up during raids, legal immigrants whose residency had been revoked when they were convicted of a crime —were asylum petitions. Applicants often said that if they were deported, they’d be raped, tortured, or killed. “You either believe them or you don’t,” he says. He’d hear testimony in the morning and issue a ruling by lunchtime, then do more cases in the afternoon. Many decisions resulted in immigrants being deported; he never found out what happened to them. Dierkes didn’t want to be wrong—but he could never be sure he was right. In 2008, he quit. The courts are drastically overloaded. A historic backlog is partly to blame, but so is the Obama administration’s goal of deporting 400,000 people this year—about 1700 cases per judge. The focus is on numbers, not the quality or fairness of the process, says Bruce Einhorn, a former IJ. Caught in the middle are the IJs, for whom mind-numbing bureaucracy collides with thorny moral issues. Increased enforcement means that their workload is the highest it has ever been, but a combination of slow hiring and high turnover has left 1 in 6 IJ positions vacant. IJs reported more burnout than doctors, aid workers, even prison wardens. It was incredibly difficult, they said, to know which asylum claims were genuine: who had truly suffered horrors, and who was coached. As one IJ put it, “It makes me feel ill to grant asylum to someone who I believe is probably lying, but it also makes me sick to think that I have denied protection to someone who really needs it.” These aren’t idle fears. In 2004, just 2 weeks after a Denver IJ deported him, a 16-year-old Guatemalan was killed by the gang he had left to escape. In February, a similar fate befell a former gang member deported to El Salvador. Dana Marks, the head of the National Association of IJs, says “these are the equivalent of death-penalty cases and we are conducting [them] in a traffic court setting.” (mother jones)

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