President Obama has said that immigration reform is the most important domestic policy agenda of his second term, and hope springs that Congress will pass legislation acceptable to both parties. But in the meantime, it’s worthwhile to consider the offices that support immigration policies in place today. A key agency within the Department of Justice (DOJ) is the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). The EOIR administers the nation’s immigrant court system, under delegated authority from the Attorney General. It conducts immigration court proceedings, appellate reviews and administrative hearings in pursuit of its primary mission: “to adjudicate immigration cases by fairly, expeditiously, and uniformly interpreting and administering the Nation’s immigration laws.” From a headquarters at two neighboring locations in Falls Church, Virginia, the agency oversees 59 immigration courts in 27 states, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The EOIR celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2013, but its origins can be traced at least to the Immigration Act of 1891. That first comprehensive federal immigration law established an Office of Immigration within the Department of Treasury and a process for examining and potentially excluding individuals seeking to enter the U.S., plus federal authority to deport individuals and to appeal deportation decisions. Over the next several decades, federal responsibilities related to immigration expanded, shifted and moved among departments. In 1933, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was created within the Department of Labor and tasked with handling all immigration issues. The INS was moved to the DOJ in 1940, and the Attorney General created the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), an independent adjudicatory body that continues to review decisions on immigration case appeals.
Further efforts to coordinate and streamline immigration law and implementation led to an internal DOJ reorganization in 1983; the BIA was combined with other functions once performed by the INS to establish the EOIR. Notably, the reorganization made Immigration Courts independent from the INS. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 further modified EOIR tasks, by establishing an office within the agency to decide cases related to illegal hiring and other unfair immigration-related hiring practices. In 2003, the Homeland Security Act abolished the INS, transferring its remaining immigration-related functions to the new Department of Homeland Security, while maintaining the EOIR within the DOJ.
Today, the EOIR employs about 1,460 full time-equivalent positions within the DOJ, with a FY 2014 requested budget of $329,569,000. Priority responsibilities include:
- Deciding whether foreign-born individuals charged with immigration law violations should be ordered removed from the U.S. or granted relief or protection from removal. Such decisions are made by about 235 immigration judges around the country;
- Deciding appeals of immigration judge decisions, through the BIA appeals process;
- Deciding cases unrelated to removal proceedings, such as document fraud, unfair employment practices and employer sanctions for hiring of unauthorized workers. These hearings are conducted by the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer within the EOIR.
Since 2010, the nation’s top official in charge of the immigration court system has been Juan Osuna, first as acting director and now as director of the EOIR. From the outset, Osuna found his courts overstretched. Escalating numbers of cases, due to DHS heightened enforcement efforts, pressured judges to decide even major cases quickly. Yet the high volume resulted in such a backlog that a typical defendant faced an average wait that well exceeded 12 months. A managed hiring freeze in 2011 exacerbated the problem by reducing the number of immigration judges while caseloads continued to increase. A FY 2014 Congressional Budget Submission for the EOIR states that the number of matters pending adjudication increased 44% from early FY 2010 to early FY 2013. According to the report, “Immigration court cases are now routinely scheduled unacceptably far into the future.” Further delays are predicted unless the agency receives a requested program funding increase of $25 million to support an additional 30 Immigration Judge teams and 15 BIA attorneys.
On January 8, a lease prospectus was also submitted by the GSA, proposing to relocate the EOIR headquarters in one Northern Virginia location. The requested 176,000 RSF would be a reduction of 14,181 RSF compared with the current locations, and USF per person would shrink from 222 to 199. In keeping with efforts to improve energy efficiency throughout the federal government, the GSA urges offerors to seek Energy Star certification. The EOIR’s current lease expires September 15, 2015.