Way back in 2010, I did a blog post about the Board of Immigration Appeals, where I complained that the Board issues too few decisions and does not provide enough guidance to Immigration Judges. Ten years later, things are no better. In fact, based on the available data, the Board is publishing even fewer decisions these days than it did back in the late aughts. Here, we’ll take a look at the situation in 2010, and then review where things stand now.
Before we get to that, we have to answer a preliminary question: What is the Board of Immigration Appeals? According to the BIA Practice Manual—
The Board of Immigration Appeals is the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws. The Board is responsible for applying the immigration and nationality laws uniformly throughout the United States. Accordingly, the Board has been given nationwide jurisdiction to review the orders of Immigration Judges and certain decisions made by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and to provide guidance to the Immigration Judges, DHS, and others, through published decisions. The Board is tasked with resolving the questions before it in a manner that is timely, impartial, and consistent with the Immigration and Nationality Act and regulations, and to provide clear and uniform guidance to Immigration Judges, DHS, and the general public on the proper interpretation and administration of the Immigration and Nationality Act and its implementing regulations.
In essence, the BIA is supposed to be the Supreme Court of immigration law. But because the Board issues so few published decisions, it is not fulfilling its duties to provide guidance or ensure that laws are applied uniformly throughout the country. This is not a recent problem.
If you look back at the data from a decade ago, you will see that in 2007, the BIA decide a total of 35,394 cases and had 45 published decisions. In 2008, it decided 38,369 cases and published 33 decisions, and in 2009, it decided 33,103 cases and published 34 decisions. This means that for every 1,000 cases the Board decides, it publishes about 1 case. Looked at another way, during 2007, 2008, and 2009, the Board had about 15 Members (judges on the BIA are called Board Members). This means that in its most prolific year (2007), each Board Member would have had to publish three cases. I’m told that publishing a case is a real production, but even so, three cases per year? That seems pretty weak. The not-very-surprising result is that the Board is not providing the guidance that Immigration Judges need, and this contributes to a situation where different adjudicators are interpreting the law in widely inconsistent ways.
Fast forward 10 year and the situation is no better. In FY2016, the Board decided 33,241 cases and in FY2017, it decided 31,820 cases. In each year, the Board published just 27 decisions. In FY2018, the Board decided 29,788 cases and published 38 decisions, and in FY2019, the BIA published 22 decisions (EOIR has not released data about the number of cases adjudicated by the Board in FY2019). Indeed, in 2018 and 2019, the situation is even worse than these numbers suggest. That’s because in 2018, of the 38 published BIA decisions, 15 were actually decided by the Attorney General (meaning only 23 were decided by the BIA). In 2019, the AG published six cases, meaning that the Board itself published a paltry 16 decision, or–given the expanded number of Board Members–less than one published decision per Member.
Let’s digress for one moment to discuss the difference between an Attorney General decision and a BIA decision. The BIA derives its decision-making authority from the Attorney General. This means that the AG has power to decide immigration appeals, but he has given that authority to the specialists on the Board, who presumably know more about immigration law than their boss. However, because decision-making power ultimately comes from the AG, he can “certify” a case to himself and then issue a decision, which has precedential authority over Immigration Judges and over the Board itself. This means that if the Board issues a decision that the AG does not like, he can change it. Prior to the Trump Administration, AGs generally deferred to the Board and rarely certified cases to themselves for decisions. In the last two years of the Obama Administration, for example, the AG issued a total of three published decisions, two in 2015 and one in 2016, as compared to 21 AG decisions in 2018 and 2019 (to be fair, the Trump Administration did not issue any AG decisions in 2017). The main reason for the AG to issue decisions is to more forcefully implement the current Administration’s immigration agenda. Many who work in the field oppose this type of politicization of the immigration law, and organizations such as the National Association of Immigration Judges (the judges’ union) have been pushing for an independent court system.
Aside from politicization of the law, one result of the AG’s more active role in issuing decisions has been to sideline the BIA. I imagine this is not good for morale. Essentially, the “Supreme Court of Immigration Law” has been relegated to deciding unpublished decisions, which contribute little to improving the overall practice of law.
In any event, it has always surprised me how few decisions the BIA publishes. Chapter 1 of the BIA Practice Manual provides: “Decisions selected for publication meet one or more of several criteria, including but not limited to: the resolution of an issue of first impression; alteration, modification, or clarification of an existing rule of law; reaffirmation of an existing rule of law; resolution of a conflict of authority; and discussion of an issue of significant public interest.” Frankly, it is difficult to believe that fewer than one case in one thousand satisfies these criteria. As I wrote in 2010–
Although it might be more work over the short term, if the Board published more frequently, Immigration Judge decisions would become more consistent–creating less work for the BIA over the long term. It would also make life easier for the federal courts of appeals, saving government resources. Finally–and most important from my point of view–it would create more certainty and predictability for immigrants and their families.
All this remains true. But after three years of the Trump Administration appointing Board Members, many of whom are considered hostile to immigrants, perhaps now is not the time to complain about too few published decisions. Maybe. But I still think there exists a desperate need for guidance and consistency, and even the “unfriendly” Board Members are more inclined to follow the law than our current AG. In addition, there are many mundane, non-political issues that simply need deciding (such as this recent BIA decision). Despite the more hostile make-up of the Board, I still believe–as I believed ten years ago–that the BIA should embrace its role as “the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws” and publish more decisions.