Chairman Serrano Statement at Hearing on Executive Office for Immigration Review

March 7, 2019
Press Release

Congressman José E. Serrano (D-NY), Chair of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on the Executive Office for Immigration Review:

The subcommittee will come to order. 

For our second hearing of the year, today we welcome James McHenry, the Director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR.  EOIR primarily functions as our nation’s immigration court system, where it administers and adjudicates our nation’s immigration laws.  Thank you for being with us, Director McHenry.

I wanted to hold this hearing because I have deep concerns about how our nation’s immigration courts are operating.  Some of those concerns are longstanding, while others have been exacerbated by the decisions of the Trump Administration.

Our nation’s immigration courts handle a wide variety of immigration-related claims, from removal proceedings to asylum claims.  These are complex, nuanced proceedings that require time, understanding, and care. In many cases, the consequence­­—removal from this country—is so severe that we must have significant due process to ensure that no one’s rights are violated in an immigration court proceeding.

Unfortunately, these concerns are increasingly being shoved aside.  This, in part, is due to the enormous, and growing, backlog of pending cases before the courts, which is now more than 1 million cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.  That growth is largely due to the significant increase in immigration enforcement efforts over the past 15 years, which has not been followed by a similar growth in the immigration court system.  Although this subcommittee has included significant increases in immigration judge teams for the past two fiscal years, the backlog has actually increased under the Trump Administration.   This situation was worsened by the recent government shutdown.

The reasons for that are sadly clear.  The leadership at the Justice Department has attempted to turn our immigration courts into a sort of deportation DMV– where immigrants get minimal due process on their way out the door.  This Administration has chosen to: impose quotas on immigration judges to limit case consideration regardless of complexity; limit the ways in which immigrants can make valid claims for asylum; increase the use of videoconferencing to reduce in-person appearances; and undermine the discretion of immigration judges to administratively close cases, among many other things. Ironically, these choices, supposedly aimed at efficiency, have actually increased the backlog.

I believe our immigration courts should strive to be a model of due process.  A couple of bright spots in that effort are the Legal Orientation Program and the Immigration Court Help Desk, both of which help to better inform immigrants about their court proceedings. We should seek to expand such programs.

Despite these efforts, in our current system, an estimated 63 percent of immigrants do not have legal counsel.  We’ve all read stories about children, some as young as 3 years old, being made to represent themselves.  That is appalling. Our immigration laws are complicated enough for native English speakers, let alone those who come here speaking other languages or who are not adults.  We can, and should, do better than this.

Today’s hearing will explore the choices we are making in our immigration court system, to better understand how the money we appropriate is being used, and whether it is being used in line with our expectations and values.  Thank you, again, Director McHenry, for being here. 

Now let me turn to my friend, Mr. Aderholt, for any comments he may have.

116th Congress