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Inna's appeal
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"I want to tell every single person I'm Jewish and this is who I am. I don't want to hide anymore," Riabovolik says. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki )
Immigration attorneys say U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's actions in streamlining the Department of Justice's Board of Immigration Appeals are violating due process for foreign nationals facing deportation. Last September, Ashcroft ordered the Board to clear its backlog of 56-thousand cases in six months. Immigration attorneys say as a result, Board members are disposing of cases so quickly, they're merely rubber-stamping lower court decisions and failing to give each case a meaningful review. Since then, foreign nationals seeking answers as to why the BIA upheld their deportations are overwhelming the federal courts with appeals.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The Board of Immigration Appeals has nearly tripled the number of deportation appeals it decides per month. That's because U.S. Atty Gen John Ashcroft cut the number of judges who review each case from three to one. However court documents allege that even with only one judge hearing each case, judges have 15 minutes on average to weigh each appeal.

Ukrainian national Inna Riabovolik's case is one of those appeals.

Riabovolik, who's Jewish, fled the Ukraine with her 12-year-old son 10 years ago seeking religious asylum. She said villagers beat them and taunted them with anti-Semitic slurs and death threats. Now she lives and works as a physical therapist in Minneapolis. Court documents say her former home in the Ukraine has since been vandalized with broken windows and swastikas.

In June 2001, an immigration judge said Riabovolik's testimony was credible, but ordered her deported partly because the judge said Riabovolik could go back to the Ukraine and "hide her Jewish religion and/or nationality and...claim to be Russian."

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Image Attorney Phillip Fishman

Riabovolik was shocked.

"I'm here because I don't want to hide. I want to tell every single person I'm Jewish and this is who I am. I don't want to hide anymore," Riabovolik said.

Riabovolik then took her case to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Her attorney, Phillip Fishman, filed a detailed petition but the BIA judge issued one sentence affirming her deportation without comment. Fishman says foreign nationals such as Riabovolik should at least be told why they lost their appeal regardless of the case's final outcome.

"There's no question that in the past we got well-reasoned decisions. We may not have been happy with them but we got a page or two-page decision...what we're asking for is at least give us a forum where we can be heard; at least give us a set of answers of why we lose," he says.

The rulings from the BIA are critical because they're often the last chance to correct an immigration judge's error. Riabovolik could afford to hire a lawyer but others are not so fortunate. There is no right to court-appointed counsel before the BIA. So foreign nationals including those who don't speak english, must represent themselves if they can't afford a lawyer. It's doubtful that they'll know how to navigate the complexity of the federal appellate court system if they lose at the BIA.

Fishman says the change from only one judge from what used to be three judges reviewing each case further compounds the chances for error.

"These are rights protected under our jurisdiction. If there's no one to address those rights then we've made a sham under appellate review; it's a sham and it's not justice," Fishman said.

The board is resolving a large number of cases fairly under tight deadlines and your implication to the contrary is both inaccurate and unfair.
- Department of Justice letter to LA. Times

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that soon after U.S. Atty. Gen. Ashcroft proposed the streamlining, BIA judges began handing out an increasing number of rulings like the one Riabovolik received -- one-sentence decisions that affirmed the immigration judge's deportation ruling without explanation.

The Department of Justice declined to comment for this story or respond to the Los Angeles Times' allegations.

However the department posts on its Web site a letter to the Times that says, "Alleging that the board is superficially reviewing large numbers of cases and trampling on due process is simply wrong. The board is resolving a large number of cases fairly under tight deadlines and your implication to the contrary is both inaccurate and unfair."

Riabovolik's attorney Phillip Fishman has appealed the BIA's one-sentence ruling to the federal courts and it appears other immigration attorneys are doing the same. In the past year, the number of immigration appeals to the eighth circuit, which includes Minnesota, has soared. But that pales compared to the West Coast, where those courts are so inundated with BIA appeals that the circuit's chief judge has issued a stay on all deportations until the judges can obtain the full records.

Clerk of Court Cathy Catterson says the number of immigration appeals has more than tripled to 3,600 cases while at the same time there's a hiring freeze on.

"We are experiencing problems. We have not been able to hire anybody. We're concerned as to what the outcome of that will be. However I think the knowledge that these cases are here, I think there's an understanding back in Washington, the administrator for the courts, that we may need some additional help," she said.

The American Immigration Law Foundation's Legal Director Nadine Wettstein says immigration attorneys around the country are appealing BIA no-explanation rulings to the federal courts. She says Ashcroft's plan to streamline the immigration appeals process has backfired.

"Congress set up this Board of Immigration Appeals and it's set up by Department of Justice regulations to avoid this sort of situation, to provide this level of administrative appeal so that people don't have to go to federal courts and flood the courts with these kinds of appeals; instead, the load is being piled back on to the courts," Wettstein says.

Several immigration law groups have sued Ashcroft, the Executive Office of Immigration Review and the Department of Justice over the BIA's streamlining process. They argue that reducing three-judge panels down to one judge and issuing rulings without explanation, violate due process.

Meanwhile, Inna Riabovolik appealed her case to a three-judge panel of the eighth circuit. That panel affirmed, without explanation the BIA's ruling, which -- without explanation -- affirmed a lower court's ruling. She says her freedom is too important to give up her fight now.

"You can read about it, you can see it on TV, you can hear it, but you never feel it. Here, for 10 years, I can tell you because I am (a) foreigner, I can feel it with every single cell of my skin. This is real freedom in this country," she says.

Riabovolik has since asked the full bench of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear her appeal.

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