The Assembly Line Approach to the Immigration Courts

             In the early 20th century, the assembly line became a widely used manufacturing process, renowned for reducing costs and creating greater affordability of products through mass production.  The production process stressed division of labor, training workers to perform one specialized operation that contributed to a sequential process and produced an end product more efficiently.  Mastered by Henry Ford and made famous at his Ford Motor Company, the assembly line revolutionized the auto industry and American manufacturing as a whole.  By decreasing the amount of hours required to produce a single vehicle, the assembly line increased production rates while reducing marginal costs.  To this day, the assembly line is considered a catalyst for the modern consumer culture of lower price points through efficient mass production and the resulting rise in consumer welfare in industrialized economies.

            Removed from a purely economic viewpoint, the non-profit organization Appleseed has used the assembly line as a metaphor to describe the U.S. government’s current approach to the immigration court system.  In its 2009 report entitled “Assembly Line Injustice” and its recent follow-up report, “Reimagining the Immigration Court Assembly Line,” Appleseed critiques the government’s increased enforcement and decreased exercise of discretion – its “deport at all costs” mentality – at a time when there are insufficient resources to handle the number of respondents in the system.  Appleseed acknowledges the government’s effort to implement policies designed to increase efficiency in the system.  Examples include inaccessibility of DHS trial attorneys and their unavailability to confer with respondents’ counsel prior to hearings, a disinclination of Immigration Judges to permit pre-hearing conferences to narrow the issues to be litigated, the increased use of videoconferencing for merits hearings during which there are frequent communications and evidentiary problems that raise due process concerns, single Board member review of Immigration Judge decisions on appeal, and the frequent usage of affirmances without opinion rather than full written opinions.  Despite their stated purpose of streamlining the process, Appleseed suggests that many of these policies have instead resulted in inaccurate or unjust results, decreasing efficiency in the system overall.

Much like an assembly line, the government’s intent of implementing such policies and practices may have been to utilize the system’s limited resources in ways that increase quality and efficiency.  However, quality and efficiency have not been the result.  Instead, the process has traded accuracy and efficiency for basic expediency, resulting in frequent miscarriages of justice.  From both an economic and a social welfare perspective, assembly lines have proven to be useful and efficient in manufacturing products like cars, where the same inputs are assembled repeatedly in a highly specialized process to produce whole goods more efficiently.  Such efficiency in the assembly line process results largely from removing the discretion in decision-making and encouraging all laborers to focus on their specialized roles in the production process.  However, while an assembly line approach might make sense in the manufacturing context, such an approach to our immigration system is folly.

In dealing with human lives – individuals’ ability to be with their families, pursue their occupations, and live free from persecution and torture – discretion in decision-making and the ability of all actors to assess the matter as a whole are critically important.  Unlike the Ford Motor Company assembly lines, the government’s approach at the mechanization of the process without considering the end product as a whole has achieved apparent expediency at the cost of true efficiency and true justice.  Without discretion and a holistic approach to each respondent’s unique factual circumstances, there is a greater probability of an inaccurate or unjust outcome.  Inaccurate outcomes prompt appeals, petitions for review, and motions to reopen, compelling respondents to remain in the system longer to remedy issues that could have been solved through the use of improved procedures below.  Ultimately, policies and practices intended to utilize the system’s limited resources in ways that eliminate backlogs and increase efficiency, much like an assembly line does, have instead created greater costs to the system, from both a social welfare and a human standpoint.  While the assembly line approach may be the best approach for manufacturing some tangible consumer products, it is not the best approach for achieving efficiency in our immigration court system and justice for respondents and their families.  Despite well-intentioned policies and practices, human beings and their families are not Ford’s Model-T, and they deserve and demand a system that does not treat them as such.

This post was written by Dree Collopy, who served as a consultant for the 2012 Appleseed report.

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