Justice denied

Give John Ashcroft your tired, your poor, your huddled masses – but make it snappy.

Quoting the legal maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, the attorney general announced plans Wednesday to reduce the number of judges hearing immigration appeals from 23 to 11 and allow an immigrant’s deportation appeal to be decided by a single judge instead of the current three-judge panels.

Speeding up legal proceedings in the interest of justice is an ironic proposal from the man who has held hundreds incommunicado in federal prisons since October, despite protests from their families and attorneys. Like those detentions and the attorney general’s 5,000 interviews with recent immigrants nationwide, this newest Ashcroftian scheme favors the efficient administrative resolution of a problem over substantive justice and well-established legal safeguards.

Given the inability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detect the Sept. 11 terrorists, and the agency’s admissions since then that it unable to keep track of most of the foreign citizens it allows into the country, it is hardly beyond the realm of reason to think the INS could make many smaller mistakes that, while not drawing media scrutiny, are nonetheless significant to the immigrants whose hopes are dashed as they are erroneously deported.

Twelve citizens are typically required for a jury – and three judges, seven judges or even more for an appellate court – for a reason: Requiring more minds to assess a case protects defendants from having their fates decided by the whims and quirks of one person. This protection is particularly important for immigration appeals panels because they are often the courts of last resort for immigrants facing deportation and lacking the resources to plead their cases in federal district courts.

Even if one accepts the familiar fiction that immigrants should not have the procedural rights guaranteed for citizens, the safeguards Americans consider integral parts of due process are as important for preserving the integrity of the judicial system as they are for producing justice in particular cases. As the president declares to the world that “it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight,” the U.S. legal system must act as one that other nations – and other branches of its own government – are carefully monitoring.

This new discouragement for current and potential immigrants is inappropriate, even absent Sept. 11, in light of Tuesday’s Census Bureau report that the 1980s and ’90s immigration boom gave the nation a record 28.4 million foreign-born residents. This means 20 percent of Americans were born in other countries or have parents who were born outside the United States. This influx from abroad is one of the pivotal factors in U.S. scientific and technological dominance, and for Ashcroft to propose treating immigrants as problems to be solved is bad for justice and the economy.