With the Immigration Court's Rocket Docket Many Unrepresented Families Quickly Ordered Deported
At the end of September 2016, according to very timely Immigration Court records obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a total of 38,601 cases on the court's "rocket docket" involving "adults with children" (AWC) have been decided by immigration judges since July of 2014.
Two years ago the Immigration Courts adopted new docketing practices that gave priority to scheduling of these "AWC" cases involving women and children seeking refuge in this country. This followed the Obama Administration's action seeking to expedite their removal, and was in response to the sudden influx of these families that began during the summer of 2014. This report examines the speed with which these cases have been closed, particularly for families without attorneys to represent them.
According to the case-by-case court data analyzed by TRAC, in 27,015 out of the 38,601 AWC closed cases - or 70 percent -- the family was unrepresented. In the remaining 30 percent or 11,586 cases, the individuals had obtained representation.
Court records also show that it was exceedingly rare for an unrepresented family to file the papers in court needed to even seek asylum or other forms of available relief from deportation. Court records indicate that only 1 in 15 (6.5%) managed to do this without formal representation, despite efforts by a variety of initiatives to try to provide various forms of advice to these families short of formal representation. In contrast, applications for relief were filed by those who were represented in 70 percent of the cases.
Figure 1. Ordered Removed at Initial Master Calendar Hearing
Further, cases for the 70 percent who were unrepresented were often quickly disposed of. In fact, forty- three percent (43.4%) of unrepresented AWC cases were ordered deported at the initial master calendar hearing. Here the median time from filing to closure for these cases was only 24 days. The time to closure for this group was virtually the same whether or not the unrepresented mother was present at this initial master calendar hearing. This type of rapid dispatch of cases occurred only four percent (4.4%) of the time for those who were represented and thus better equipped to mount a defense against the deportation action. See Figure 1 and Table 1.
Even including unrepresented families that were given additional time at the initial master calendar hearing, the typical (median) time from DHS's filing in Immigration Court to case disposal was just 60 calendar days. In contrast, the median time from filing to closure was 286 days for families who were represented.
Immigration Courts Vary in Summarily Ordering Deportation of Unrepresented Families
While 43 percent of unrepresented families were ordered deported at the initial master calendar hearing, practices varied sharply by Immigration Court. In the Memphis, Baltimore, Harlingen and Dallas Immigration Courts, around two out of every three individuals who were unrepresented were ordered deported at their initial hearing. In contrast, in the Orlando, Newark, San Francisco, New York and Detroit Immigration Courts this occurred less than 15 percent of the time.
Whether or not the unrepresented family was ordered deported at the first hearing was influenced in some courts by whether or not the mother appeared at the hearing. Overall, however, this factor appeared to be less important than general court practices on granting more time. Courts that rarely entered a deportation order at the first hearing if the family hadn't as yet obtained representation tended to given additional time whether or not the women appeared at the first hearing. Extensions of time presumably also helped ensure that the family had actually received the notice of the hearing, and that no unforeseen problem had prevented them from appearing.
The importance of court practices can be clearly seen when we just examine at which hearing in absentia decisions were handed down. These decisions are all made when individuals do not show up at their court hearing. For these unrepresented families, the proportion of such decisions summarily handed down at this initial master hearing ranged widely. In some courts it appeared to be standard practice to reset the case for a later time before issuing an in absentia order. Other courts frequently immediately ordered the family removed. Indeed, families were summarily ordered deported when they didn't appear for their initial master calendar hearing in the Dallas and Memphis Immigration Courts 72 percent of the time, while in Orlando and Newark Courts this occurred only 4 to 5 percent of the time.
Table 2 below provides specific details on the practices of each immigration court for unrepresented families. Shown are both the number and the proportion of all decisions where the family was ordered deported at the initial master calendar hearing. Also shown in Table 3 are similar figures when just in absentia decisions are examined.
When families initially do not have an attorney to represent them, disposing of their cases quickly may prevent them from locating an attorney. Yet whether or not the family is represented is the single most important factor in whether families ultimately will win their case. Examining these 38,601 cases closed as of September 30, 2016, for those without representation, slightly less than four percent (3.8%) won their cases. In contrast, among those with representation forty percent (40.0%) were awarded asylum, other forms of relief, or were found to have other grounds at the present time to remain in the U.S.
Table 1. Closed Immigration Court Cases for Women and Children as of September 30, 2016*
Table 2. Closed Cases for Unrepresented Women and Children by Immigration Court
 A March 24, 2015 directive issued by the Chief Immigration Judge states that "nothing in the priority scheduling of ... [women with children] cases for the first master calendar hearing should inhibit a judge's discretion to reset the case to obtain representation."