SJI began using the Strategic Initiatives Grants (SIG) program in FY 2008 to address immigration issues in the state courts at a national impact level. The Center for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) was awarded a SIG (SJI-08-P-138) to identify the major challenges and opportunities for state courts in addressing immigration issues in several pilot states.
Subsequent grant awards expanded the impact of this project to additional states, in addition to generating bench guides and other key materials on this important issue. CPPS (in coordination with SJI) also developed working relationships with key federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), DHS/Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and DOJ/Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR). Over the years, these working relationships have led to a significant increase in understanding of the critical state court role in federal and state immigration law and policy, including a focus on human trafficking and the importance of state court records in immigration proceedings.
The rights of a non-citizen under federal immigration law can be impacted by their involvement in a state court criminal, family, juvenile, or civil case. This can make the application process to the USCIS for naturalization and other immigration benefits heavily dependent on the contents and quality of state court records. Access to court records is also needed by unaccompanied juveniles and immigrant crime victims, and state court records documenting family relationships can be critical to processing immigration matters. However, there are significant misalignments between the USCIS and state court systems that make the system especially difficult for immigrants, state court personnel, and federal immigration hearing officers. Applicants for immigrant benefits must produce certified copies of state court documents regarding cases in which they were involved. In general, USCIS does not allow these documents to be submitted electronically, even if the transmission comes from the state court. Filling these requests can be time consuming for court personnel. Furthermore, contents and quality of court records can vary greatly by state, and even within a state, so that some court actions may not appear in records at all.
With SJI support, in a new project CPPS will address four strategic priorities: 1) enhance state court capacity to efficiently, securely, and effectively exchange records with USCIS; 2) increase the ease of access to state court records by self-represented immigrant court users; 3) build effective partnerships between the state courts and USCIS in two pilot states (Georgia and Iowa); and 4) create a model approach and tools for effective state court/USCIS records exchange that can be used across the United States. CPPS will form and facilitate state court/USCIS records exchange development and implementation teams to assess the uses of state court records, and document best practices. The Georgia and Iowa AOCs, in addition to state court clerks of courts associations and USCIS field offices are committed to this project. The two states illustrate both ends of the court record spectrum – court record-keeping in Georgia is mostly locally controlled and paper-based; whereas Iowa is implementing a centralized electronic and document filing system that will make court records paperless statewide.
The project will result in a model state court/USCIS records exchange planning and technical assistance approach that can be used across the United States; best practices for records exchange and serving immigrants; and records exchange training curricula that has been tested in two states and will be adaptable.