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As Deportations Increase, So Have Officials’ Attempts to Deport the Wrong People

New data show that in recent months, immigration judges have rejected almost a third of all deportation cases brought by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As deportations have increased under the Obama administration, immigration judges have also increasingly denied requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport people who were legitimately entitled to stay in the country, according to new data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse.

From July to September of this year, for instance, almost a third of all deportation cases brought by ICE were rejected by immigration judges—up from 12 months earlier, when the rate was one out of every four. According to TRAC, judges have rejected removal orders for more than a quarter of a million individuals in the past five years.

While the judges’ exact reasons remain unclear, records from the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review indicate that many times, immigration officials had either tried to deport the wrong people or requested dismissal because they didn’t have enough evidence to justify deportation. In some cases, judges also granted relief [PDF] because of an individual’s refugee status, a pending application for change of legal status or for some other reason.

ICE has refused to turn over more detailed data on the deportation cases that were rejected by courts, according to TRAC. In lieu of more data, TRAC noted the following questions:

The new findings about the broad failures in ICE efforts to deport individuals raise two important questions that might be answered with the more extensive data that the agency has sought to withhold from the public. One involves the effectiveness of the agency: is it targeting the individuals for removal who in fact should be deported? The second question concerns the basic fairness of the process: what is the impact on those individuals the agency has wrongly sought to remove who were entitled to remain in the United States?

When we asked about the immigration cases brought by ICE that were rejected by judges, ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz-Delgado said his agency has “no say in what the decision of the immigration judges is going to be,” and reiterated that his agency’s priority is to “remove criminal aliens first.”  

The new statistics coincide with a smattering of localreports, which in recent months have noted that immigration courts across the country are increasingly dismissing some deportation cases for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Here’s a Miami Herald story, for instance, that ran just last week:

In August and September, for example, judges at Miami immigration court dismissed 631 deportation cases compared to 449 in June and July.

In fact, the 324 cases immigration judges dismissed in August was the highest monthly case termination figure in the last 12 months, according to statistics the Justice Department's immigration court system released last week.

… While immigration court officials would not speculate on why judges are terminating more cases than before, some attorneys said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement trial attorneys now seem more willing to drop deportation cases against certain foreign nationals.

Last month, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee called for an investigation into the increase in dismissals of deportation cases, alleging that Homeland Security officials are selectively enforcing the law based on “chosen enforcement priorities.”

As we’ve noted, one potential cause for the dismissals could be the staggering backlog of cases in immigration courts—a number that has risen to record levels along with the rise in deportations under the Obama administration.

This week the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted that while dismissals don’t seem to be increasing in Las Vegas, the backlog there is at an all-time high, having ballooned by more than 80 percent this year.

TRAC’s data also show that the trend of rejected deportation cases depends on the court, but the top five in this fiscal year were New York City (with 70% of cases rejected), Portland (63%), Los Angeles (63%), Miami (59%), and Philadelphia (55%).

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