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Immigration court backlogs no excuse for terse decisions - 3rd Cir.

3 minute read

REUTERS/Vicente Gaibor del Pino

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  • Jump in caseloads does not justify erosion of due process
  • Decisions that do not cite record evidence 'will never suffice'
  • Court revived Ecuadorean man's asylum bid

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(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court has ruled that an immigration judge's two-sentence decision denying asylum to an Ecuadorean man was insufficient, and it warned that busy dockets are not an excuse for judges to summarily dispose of cases.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Jorge Luis Valarezo-Tirado that a judge must take another look at his petition because her 13-word ruling failed to cite any evidence or offer up a reasoned explanation of why his fear of persecution in his home country did not entitle him to relief.

The panel recognized that immigration court caseloads have exploded over the last decade, with judges now handling more than 1,500 cases each year on average, but said that workload does not allow them to deprive asylum applicants of due process.

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"We will not permit crowded dockets or a backlog of cases to excuse an IJ or the (Board of Immigration Appeals) from providing a meaningful explanation of why someone has been denied relief," Circuit Judge Theodore McKee wrote.

Valarezo's lawyer, Robert Helfand, said the ruling was important not only for his client but for other refugees.

"Families like Mr. Valarezo's who turn to our country for help are in peril for their lives," Helfand said. "This decision recognizes that our government must treat them that way."

Helfand works for the Connecticut Comptroller's office and volunteered through the nonprofit Immigration Justice Campaign to represent Valarezo. He is also represented by lawyers from Carlton Fields.

Valarezo entered the U.S. illegally in 2017 and was ordered deported in early 2020.

He applied for asylum, claiming he feared for his and his family's lives after getting into a dispute with a neighbor who had ties to drug traffickers. Valarezo claimed local police in Ecuador discouraged him from filing a report against the neighbor, who had allegedly threatened him with a gun.

An asylum officer found that Valarezo was credible but that he had failed to provide specific evidence showing that the police could not protect him. Valarezo appealed to an immigration judge.

The judge at a hearing last year told Valarezo that his situation "seems to be more of a personal matter" and that he had failed to show that he feared persecution on the basis of a protected ground such as political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The IJ's written opinion denying relief to Valarezo stated in its entirety: “(Respondent) not targeted on account of protected ground. Government is willing to assist.”

Valarezo again appealed, arguing that the judge's decision was not supported by substantial evidence.

The 3rd Circuit on Friday agreed, saying the judge's bare conclusion was insufficient to deny relief and lacked "specific, cogent reasons" for her conclusions.

The court said the case had to be remanded to the judge to reconsider Valarezo's petition.

"The IJ’s failure to provide a citation or reference to anything in the record leaves us guessing at the evidence she relied upon and gives us nothing to review," McKee wrote.

The panel included Circuit Judges D. Brooks Smith and Thomas Ambro.

The case is Valarezo-Tirado v. Attorney General, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-1705.

For Valarezo: Robert Helfand; Charles Stotter of Carlton Fields

For the government: Lance Jolley of the U.S. Department of Justice

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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