Carrie La Suer

(Daily Montanan) The drive from Billings to Las Vegas is nearly a thousand miles. That’s 14 to 15 hours of windshield time, winding through some of the roughest, most isolated country in the continental U.S.

Imagine that U.S. forces recently evacuated you from Afghanistan, where the advancing Taliban would have killed you as a member of the Afghan military who fought them alongside Americans. You retreated under orders, unable to reach your wife and children, left behind in hiding in Kabul. Now, alone in Montana, struggling to improve your English, you must make the journey to Las Vegas in winter for your first immigration hearing.

You’ve come through war, exile from the only home you’ve ever known, separation from your family, and imprisonment in the first country you arrived in, but the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service still has a few curveballs for you.

You’ve had only a few weeks’ notice of your hearing, barely time to figure out how to make the trip. You’ve managed to borrow a car, but the owner has to work and can’t come with you. Flights are wildly expensive and you’ve survived first on savings and charity, now on a temporary work permit, so the road is the best option, but the drive is risky.

You’re lucky enough to have a pro bono lawyer appearing for you by video, but you’ve never met her in person. For most people in your situation, there is no lawyer. Although your life and those of your family are on the line, you have no right to representation.

This is the situation for dozens, possibly hundreds, of new Montana residents from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela, and other nations in crisis, including family members of U.S. citizens. The U.S. allows them to enter and remain in this country because they have credible fears of persecution in their home country and therefore a right under U.S. and international law to seek asylum. Montana nonprofits and religious organizations are scrambling to respond.

Since the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan in 2021, more than 76,000 Afghan nationals have arrived in the U.S., the largest wave of wartime evacuees since the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. The New York Times recently published a map of the distribution of Afghan refugees, with a few pinpoints in Montana, compared to thousands of arrivals in San Diego, Houston, and D.C. Many more are waiting for permission to come. In most cases, their lives are in danger from the Taliban.

Until 2016, a Montana resident in immigration proceedings could go to Helena, where a traveling immigration court staff heard cases several days a month. Budget cuts eliminated the court toward the end of the Obama administration. There was pressure to shift resources to the southern border, so staff relocated from more northern locations.

“Detailing” judges, as it’s called when judges move to different locations to hear cases, is expensive (travel, hotel, office space). According to the agency, immigration judges handle about 700 cases a year – the backlog is approaching 2 million – so Montana’s relatively light caseload makes the Helena court low on the priority list.

Now, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Denver are common immigration court assignments for Montana residents. Personal appearances are usually mandatory. Travel is a costly burden for displaced people struggling to adapt to a new country.

Anna Maria Pena, left, of Venezuela, celebrates with her husband and children after receiving her U.S. citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in Missoula on Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Anna Maria Pena, left, of Venezuela, celebrates with her husband and children after receiving her U.S. citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in Missoula on Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
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The distance is also a burden for lawyers, who often can’t spare the time to travel for brief hearings that are frequently rescheduled at the last minute. There can be jurisdictional problems, too. Montana is in the Ninth Circuit, a huge appellate region that includes all the states on the west coast, Nevada, and Idaho.

In the 9th Circuit, judges must give greater weight to testimony about what happened in other countries, and case law makes it more difficult to find that an immigration witness isn’t credible. That’s fine if a Montana resident goes to a hearing in Las Vegas, also in the 9th Circuit, but Salt Lake City and Denver are in the 10th Circuit. If a judge rules against a Montana resident using 10th Circuit law, when 9th Circuit law would have given a more favorable result, that’s just bad luck.

Many Montana lawyers may not be familiar with 10th Circuit law, making it that much more difficult for Montana residents to find a qualified attorney.

Montana lawyers with expanding immigration practices are beginning to ask: Why Helena’s immigration court couldn’t be restored. Kari Hong, a Missoula attorney with the Florence Project, an immigration rights organization, points out that many clients have trouble finding qualified lawyers where multiple jurisdictions are involved, and differences in appellate law give some Montana residents worse judicial outcomes based on a random court assignment.

As a practitioner, Hong notes, it’s harder to show documents in a remote hearing, or be sure that everyone is looking at the same document. Interpretation is more difficult. Not being in the courtroom with a client makes it hard to establish rapport, and make sure that the judge is hearing everything. Attorneys are legitimately concerned, says Hong, about providing effective counsel in remote hearings that could be located anywhere in the country.

The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service has office space in Helena, where it handles immigration biometrics checks. so the cost of bringing in an itinerant immigration judge to handle Montana residents’ cases might be only a staffing and travel expense. But the appointment of more immigration judges and their assignments have become political issues wrestled over in Washington, D.C.

Paul Wickham Schmidt, a Wisconsin native, served as a career immigration lawyer and judge, chaired the Board of Immigration Appeals in the 1990s, and is now a law professor at Georgetown and George Mason universities. He writes about dysfunction in the U.S. immigration system on his blog, Immigration Courtside. In an interview, he’s outspoken about how immigration courts have become a disgrace to the fundamental American value of justice for all.

“Today’s DOJ has allowed immigration courts to become weaponized as a tool of immigration enforcement,” says Schmidt. “For example, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions unethically and improperly referred to supposedly fair and impartial immigration judges as ‘in partnership’ with DHS enforcement. Attorney General (Merrick) Garland has done little to dispel this notion.”

Schmidt talks about the “Dred Scottification” of refugees, referring to the US Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, holding that all people of African descent were not U.S. citizens and therefore could not sue for their rights in U.S. federal court.

The current U.S. immigration system, Schmidt says, treats refugees as sub-human, unworthy of rights long enshrined in U.S. and international law. It uses the court system to send political messages (for example, “Don’t come”) to refugees, turning the courts into political weapons.

Americans, says Schmidt, should be disgusted.

Part of the problem in maintaining the integrity of immigration courts is that immigration judges are appointed by the Attorney General and serve at his or her pleasure. They don’t have the independence of federal judges confirmed by the U.S. Senate under Article III of the Constitution, or the protections of Article I judges, like bankruptcy judges. They don’t control their dockets. Scheduling is done by non-judicial administrators, who book judges and lawyers so tightly that there’s no way, according to Schmidt, to do their jobs competently.

Immigration courts also lack necessary administrative support.

Hiring court administrators is done through a slow, difficult hiring process, and administrators struggle with inadequate space and tech support, which handicaps the whole immigration court system. In one example of the slow pace of progress in the immigration system, cases handled by the Executive Office for Immigration Review finally went electronic in 2022 – a quarter century after the U.S. federal courts transitioned to electronic filing, using a different system.

Nearly 30 people from 20 different countries celebrate during a naturalization ceremony in Missoula on Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Nearly 30 people from 20 different countries celebrate during a naturalization ceremony in Missoula on Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
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Many immigration judges are shouting for reform. Judge Dana Leigh Marks of the San Francisco Immigration Court, a past President of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says: “Immigration judges often feel asylum hearings are ‘like holding death penalty cases in traffic court.’”

Highly qualified people continue to leave the agency rather than uphold a farce.

“There are many of us who just feel we can’t be part of a system that’s just so fundamentally unfair,” said Ilyce Shugall, who quit her job as an immigration judge in San Francisco in 2019 and now directs the Immigrant Legal Defense Program at the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco. “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution.”

Schmidt writes on his blog about the U.S.’s “disgracefully dysfunctional immigration courts,” which offer no right to legal representation. Having an attorney in immigration proceedings makes a huge difference, statistically speaking. For recently arrived women with children fleeing violence, the success rate of represented applicants is 14 times higher.

To fix the major problems with the system, Schmidt has a short list of big changes he’d like to see:

  • Create an Article I immigration court system. Article I courts are legislative courts created by Congress, without full judicial power to decide Constitutional questions, but with enough independence not to be controlled by political appointees.
  • The Board of Immigration Appeals needs to become a true appellate court.
  • Reverse reforms put in place by Attorneys General William Barr and John Ashcroft, intended to reduce the capacity of the immigration courts to do the work assigned to them by Congress.
  • Remove judges who deny 100% of asylum applications.
  • At the management level of the agency, hire professional court managers focused on providing due process and making the system work efficiently.
  • Improve automation, e-filing, and information-technology capability.

Montana residents are a tiny constituency of perhaps hundreds in the vast U.S. immigration system, processing millions of people, but they demonstrate what’s broken. Somewhere under the Big Sky is an Afghan evacuee who saved military aircraft from falling into the hands of the Taliban during the U.S. retreat from Kabul. He’s desperately worried about his wife and children trapped in Kabul, where the Taliban have identified them as the family of a soldier who supported the Americans.

They exist in hiding, while the Taliban-controlled passport agency charges thousands of dollars to produce a legal travel document. While his asylum application winds its way through the system, he texts his wife every day.

“All I can think about is making them safe,” he says.

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