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Some Immigrants Meet Harsh Face of Justice

Complaints of insensitive -- even abusive -- conduct by some U.S. immigration judges have prompted a broad federal review.

February 12, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

The complaints about immigration judges were alarming.

In San Francisco, a U.S. citizen was wrongly deported to Mexico after a judge failed to verify the authenticity of his birth certificate and tax records -- actions that drew harsh criticism from a federal appeals court.

In Chicago, an appellate board found that a political asylum case involving an Albanian citizen was mishandled because the judge relied on testimony from a document expert who did not speak or read Albanian.

And in Boston, a judge was suspended for more than a year after he referred to himself as "Tarzan" during a court proceeding for a Ugandan woman named Jane.

Describing the conduct of some judges as "intemperate and even abusive," U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales recently announced that the Justice Department was launching a comprehensive review of the nation's immigration courts.

"To the aliens who stand before you, you are the face of American justice," Gonzales wrote in a Jan. 9 memo to immigration judges. "I insist that each be treated with courtesy and respect."

The review will focus on the performance of the nation's 224 immigration judges, including 55 in California. Last year, the jurists, who are appointed by the attorney general, heard about 270,000 cases, according to department statistics.

The review, which is underway, is being conducted by the deputy and associate attorneys general. It will assess the nature and scope of the problems within the system and recommend improvements, a Justice Department official said.

The National Assn. of Immigration Judges supports the review but believes that incidents of misconduct are rare, said Dana Leigh Marks, vice president of the organization.

"We do not believe that there is rampant incompetence and intemperance of judges," said Marks, who works in the San Francisco courts. "The vast majority of judges do an outstanding job."

Justice Department officials said the agency did not keep records on the number of complaints filed against judges. But an informal survey by the Executive Office for Immigration Review estimated that in the last five years, it had received complaints against 20 judges. No details were given.

Depending on the severity of the case, judicial misconduct is generally handled by an oral or written admonishment, temporary suspension or removal from the bench, officials said.

But immigration attorneys and critics said errant judges were emboldened by lifetime appointments and little oversight. They said records were not kept on problem judges because disciplinary action was not a priority.

"Reprimand means nothing for an immigration judge with tenure," said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA and a former immigration attorney. "The complaints process is, to put it bluntly, a mockery of justice."

Some of the most stinging criticism comes from the appellate courts; it ranges from the insensitive manner in which some judges address foreign nationals to the way they mete out justice.

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A few judges, such as Los Angeles Judge Anna Ho, have been warned repeatedly about their performance.

In 2001, Ho -- then based in Seattle -- wrongly ordered Salvador Rivera, a U.S. citizen, deported to Mexico, according to court records. Rivera, a former drug convict arrested by immigration officials, had once pretended to be a Mexican national to avoid arrest, and was even voluntarily deported.

But Ho dismissed as dubious the paperwork presented at trial by Rivera's mother, including his birth certificate, a middle-school report card, tax records and a page from his high school yearbook. Rivera, then 25, was born in Portland, Ore.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Rivera's actions did not warrant "involuntary relinquishment of citizenship" and concluded that Ho had failed to conduct herself "as an impartial judge but rather as a prosecutor anxious to pick holes in the petitioner's story."

Rivera remains in Mexico, and his case is again pending before the appellate board, said his attorney, Karen L. Gilbert.

"He is penniless," Gilbert said. "It's terrible that a U.S. citizen is being held outside the country for so long."

In other cases, appellate judges have criticized Ho for using "cookie-cutter credibility findings" in rejecting petitions for political asylum and for having a "predisposition to discredit" testimony.

Ho was not available for comment. Federal judges are generally not permitted to talk to reporters.

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In one of the most highly publicized cases, Boston immigration Judge Thomas M. Ragno was placed on administrative leave in 2003 after he joked "Me Tarzan" to a Ugandan asylum-seeker named Jane, a rape victim. Ragno, who had served on the bench for more than 30 years, has since retired.

It was not the first time the jurist had been in trouble.

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