WASHINGTON — Five of the 16 members of the nation's highest immigration appeals board have been asked to find other jobs, congressional and legal sources said, in what critics termed a "purge" by the Justice Department of the most pro-immigrant board members
A spokesman for Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft called such claims "ridiculous" and inaccurate.
The five serve on the Board of Immigration Appeals, a little-known panel with broad powers to review the decisions of immigration judges, decide the fates of people fighting deportation orders and issue authoritative rulings on immigration laws and policies.
"Until the attorney general discloses his reasons for informing these five people that they should seek other work, this has all the appearances of a purge of dedicated civil servants based on a perception of their policy views," said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, who was general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration and now teaches law at Georgetown University.
"There is no purge," responded a Justice Department spokesman. The board is being reduced to 11 members at the end of this month as part of a previously announced streamlining plan, he added.
"No decision will be made until the end of March as to which members are going to be on the board," said the spokesman. "No one has been informed that they are the ones who will not make up the membership."
Other sources identified Noel Brennan, Cecelia Espenoza, John Guendelsberger, Paul Schmidt and Gustavo Villageliu as the five board members who have already been notified that they would have to step aside.
A congressional official and an immigrant rights advocate said they had directly confirmed that the five had been quietly informed in late February.
They were given the option of seeking other Justice Department jobs.
"This sends a signal to the remaining [members] that if you don't toe the line, you could be in jeopardy," said a Senate aide who asked not to be identified. "It is a serious public policy concern, because you want to have an immigration system in place in which the judges are able to exercise independent judgment."
Attempts to reach board members were unsuccessful, and a spokeswoman for the board referred questions to the Justice Department.
The five "are definitely pro-immigrant," said immigration lawyer Lory Rosenberg, a former board member who said she also had confirmed the pending shake-up.
The five were individually told to expect that their jobs would be eliminated as part of the streamlining plan, Rosenberg said. "No one was really fired or terminated," she said. "People were told the department had made a decision on who it was going to remove from the board.
"Skewing the balance of people on that board is very questionable," added Rosenberg, who had been one of the board's most liberal members. "It's unclear to me what standard they have used to make the decision -- they definitely did not use seniority."
Guendelsberger, Schmidt and Villageliu, who were appointed to the board in 1995, are among its most senior members. Schmidt is a past chairman.
The Justice Department spokesman scoffed at the claim that the board would be skewed, noting that 14 of its current 16 members were appointed by Janet Reno, Clinton's attorney general. "Even if you were to knock half the members off the board, the vast majority would still be Reno appointees," he said.
Ashcroft has the authority to replace the entire board if he chooses, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates curbs on immigration.
" 'Purge' is a loaded term," said Krikorian. "Even if this were a way to remove particular officials because of their pattern of decisions, there would be nothing wrong with that. These people really are just civil servants.... Board members should clearly represent the attorney general's views, since they are carrying out his responsibility."
The Justice Department said the plan to streamline the board's procedures was needed to reduce a backlog that had reached 39,000 cases at this time last year. The backlog is now down to 12,700, according to the department.
A Times computer study of the board's docket, for an article earlier this year, found dramatic changes not only in the backlog but also in the nature of the board's decisions after Ashcroft proposed new rules in 2002 to expedite the handling of cases.
The proportion of summary rulings -- those issued with no elaboration -- rose markedly until they accounted for more than half of the board's decisions by August. Virtually all summary rulings supported findings by immigration judges against immigrants.
Calling the new rules a violation of due process, the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. is suing the Justice Department in an effort to block them from going into effect.
Aleinikoff said the acceleration of decisions by the appeals board left the individual members too little time to consider each case more than superficially.
"These are very important cases for the immigrants involved and for the American people," Aleinikoff said. "To establish a program that rewards speed ... is troubling from the start."