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Houston immigration judge removed from bench

29 Mar

By Lomi Kriel

A Houston immigration judge who hasn’t heard cases for 10 months in the overwhelmed downtown court is no longer employed by the Department of Justice, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

Judge Mimi Yam, who came to Houston from San Francisco in 2004 and had an unusual allergy to scented cosmetics that often caused her to reset cases, had long, unexplained absences from the bench throughout her tenure.

Between January 2010 and May 2015, for instance, she had several gaps when she heard no cases, including one consecutive period as long as seven months, according to data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an arm of the Justice Department that oversees the courts.

In that same period, the court’s pending cases grew by nearly 400 percent, swelling from about 6,400 cases to 31,300, according to federal data.

The backlog means that both immigrants with a valid claim to stay in the United States and those who should be quickly deported wait years to resolve their cases.

In May, after immigration lawyers told the Houston Chronicle that Yam once again had not heard cases in months, the judge was placed on administrative leave. At the time, her attorney said it was in retaliation for whistleblowing but did not provide details.

Between May and when EOIR confirmed her employment ended on March 18, Yam heard no cases even as the court reached a record backlog of more than 37,400 cases last month with only five judges on the bench. An average immigration case in Houston now takes more than two years to wind its way through the process, according to federal data, but many immigrants wait five years.

Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said Thursday that it does not comment on personnel matters. The agency has also declined in the past to answer questions about the long gaps between Yam’s decisions or provide details about if, when, why and for how long she may have been on leave, or whether she had been disciplined. Immigration judges make as much as $170,400 annually.

A strain on the system

Yam’s lawyer, John Judge, said she decided to retire after losing her whistleblower case in December and electing not to appeal it. He has declined to provide details about her claim, and Mattingly has said her agency would not comment on “third-party allegations.”

“(Yam) decided not to pursue that case,” said Judge, an attorney in Austin. “She’s tired.”

He said Yam was on administrative leave between May and September but resumed working in October although she was not allowed back on the bench.

“She went back to work and sat in her office,” Judge said. “They gave her no cases to decide.”

Mattingly said EOIR began advertising for a judge vacancy in Houston last November and has assigned Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Clarence Wagner to periodically hear cases here while he performs supervisory duties.

Texas immigration courts have the highest backlog in the country after California, which has nearly 84,000 pending cases, according to an analysis of court records by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The delays in processing cases only escalated in 2014 when more than 67,000 unaccompanied Central American children and families flooded across the Texas border, many of them claiming to be escaping gang violence and asking for asylum. The Obama administration expedited their cases to reinforce a message abroad that immigrants here illegally wouldn’t be able to stay. That set other cases back by years.

“The backlog already was really big, now just imagine having a missing judge,” said Raed Gonzalez, an immigration attorney who said the majority of his cases have been reset to 2019.

Samantha Del Bosque, a senior staff attorney at Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit providing pro bono legal services in Houston for immigrant women and children, said Yam’s frequent absences bogged down a system already in crisis.

“It’s just been a strain obviously on people waiting for hearings, on attorneys, especially nonprofits trying to retain pro bono attorneys,” she said. “It’s also been a strain on the other judges who saw their docket increase whenever (Yam’s) was sort of purged.”

Far fewer cases

The consequences of delay can be dire, not just inconvenient, ruining immigrants’ chances to stay here legally and costing them thousands of dollars. Immigrants who should be sent home quickly are allowed to stay for years; witnesses in difficult asylum cases may disappear or die.

In one of Del Bosque’s cases, an Ethiopian woman who sought asylum because she feared an honor killing at home has been waiting to see Yam since 2013. A month before her attorney was set to argue her case last September, Yam’s court postponed her hearing once more to 2019.

Even when Yam was on the bench, she heard far fewer cases than her colleagues. Between January and when she was placed on administrative leave last May, she decided just 15 cases, according to federal data. By contrast, Judge Richard Walton issued decisions in more than 700 cases in that period.