The man was having trouble keeping track of his life.
“I cannot think anymore,” he told the immigration judge. “I go to leave the house, I don’t come back in for two or three days.”
The 57-year-old father of six came to the United States from Iran in the 1970s. He had suffered multiple head wounds from motorcycle accidents and in 1993, he was hit in the head with a pipe during a mugging, according to court documents. The man and his lawyer were pleading with the judge to not deport him. His daughter also attested to her father’s mental haziness and troubles.
Your help lets us keep reporting on immigrant communities. Support our work today.
“Sending my father back to Iran is like a death sentence for him,” she said in a written court statement.
But in his confusion, the man had failed to submit his fingerprints to the court, as ordered. The judge, following the law to the letter, said, “the respondent has not done what he is supposed to do.” He then put the man on track to deportation.
The Iranian filed a complaint with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) about the judge’s conduct. In the documents, the judge is dismissive of both the man and his lawyer. “You’re not a mental health professional,” he told the man’s attorney, who was pleading with the judge to take his client’s mental condition into account with his ruling.
The judge “treated my father unfairly, was very aggressive with everyone in the court, and would frequently go off the record and make inappropriate statements,” his daughter wrote in her court testimony. In one hearing, she “tried to speak near the end of the hearing but [the judge] immediately went off the record and abruptly cut me off before I could say anything.”
Until recently, the judge was known only by the initial KMJ, one of 201 anonymous judges across the country referenced in thousands of pages of complaints released by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) as the result of a lawsuit initiated by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) over a Freedom of Information Act request. According to new information released by the EOIR, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, KMJ is New York City immigration judge Alan Vomacka, who has been deciding who can and cannot stay in the U.S. for over three decades.
The FOIA lawsuit uncovered 26 complaints lodged with the EOIR against Vomacka over the span of a decade (six were dismissed), putting him among the judges with the higher number of complaints unearthed by the lawsuit. He’s one of only seven who had more than 20 complaints filed against them. “This is an active judge with numerous complaints, over three-quarters of which were substantiated,” lawyers for Public Citizen and AILA wrote in a court document. “Additionally, the complaints all relate to in court behavior and involve escalating levels of discipline, suggesting more serious allegations or a pattern of improper behavior.”
The complaints, and the Justice Department’s reluctance to make them public, paint a damning picture of the immigration courts, where judges face few consequences for their actions despite a few having more than two dozen complaints lodged against them.
Subscribe to early arrival
Sign-up for Early Arrival, a Documented newsletter that rounds up the latest local and national immigration news.
Transcripts of court proceedings attached to the complaints offer an insight into Vomacka’s career, as well as a glimpse into the secretive world of New York City’s immigration courts. Documented contacted the judge, but he said he did not want to speak with journalists before hanging up the phone. EOIR also did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), Vomacka received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University in 1970, and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Houston in 1977. He became an immigration judge in July 1987 in Harlingen, Texas. In 1993, he was transferred to New York City, where he has been a judge ever since.
Vomacka has spent decades overseeing deportation cases in the City’s downtown Manhattan courts. He oversaw the deportation hearings of Koral Karsan, a Turkish native who attempted to extort the artist and musician Yoko Ono, the widow of Beatle John Lennon. He prevented the deportation of Ricky Walters, the rapper known as Slick Rick, in 1995.
In private, immigration attorneys, who are wary of criticizing immigration judges publicly, complained about Vomacka’s sometimes insulting courtroom demeanor.
In 2008, Vomacka drew criticism for his treatment of Peter Conrad Ali, a 42-year-old man from Guyana, who claimed he was raped by police and would be persecuted if he was sent back to that country. Ali had been convicted of multiple crimes in the past, had been deported, and had returned to the U.S. illegally. He had been caught and charged for illegal reentry when he added a claim to his petition to stay deportation. Ali said he was homosexual and feared the Guyanese authorities would cause him harm.
Vomacka was skeptical.
“Violent dangerous criminals and feminine contemptible homosexuals are not usually considered to be the same people,” he said. It was unlikely Ali was telling the truth about his fears of persecution in Guyana, Vomacka implied.
In order to prove this claim, Ali “would need a partner or a cooperating person,” to corroborate his sexual orientation. The picture of Ali “as a proud, professed homosexual in Guyana seems to be more an expression of wishful thinking than something that’s particularly likely to come true,” Vomacka said.
The Justice Department pulled Vomacka from the case, after finding that his comments made unfair assumptions about Ali and his sexual orientation. Vomacka’s comment about needing a person to corroborate his claim “appears to derive from stereotypes about homosexuality and how it is made identifiable to others.”
From 2013 to 2018, Vomacka denied about 60 percent of the asylum cases he heard, according to data compiled by TRAC. The citywide denial rate for that time period, also according to TRAC, was roughly 20 percent. He had the third highest denial rate of the court, after Judges James M. McCarthy and Sandy K. Hom, who had denial rates of 63.4 percent and 63.3 percent, respectively. Despite being harsh by New York City standards, Vomacka is more lenient than judges elsewhere in the country. From 2013 to 2018, Judge Earle B. Wilson in Atlanta had a denial rate of 98.1 percent.
Documented reviewed the 26 case files included in AILA’s trove of complaints. The complaints paint a picture of a judge who was often accused of relying on assumptions, rather than the facts before him. As in the case with the Iranian father, Vomacka was strict and inflexible about court procedure. In some cases, he was blunt and some found his questioning insensitive.
“Was there any other physical contact that they inflicted on you, while you were detained?” he asked a Christian Chinese woman who was seeking asylum in the U.S. due to her religious beliefs.
“By being beaten, you’re referring to being slapped two or three times, plus, having the inappropriate touching,” he continued. “If they were willing to do these things, do you have any idea why they didn’t beat you more seriously, to get information about the church?” Vomacka found her testimony lacked credibility and ordered her deported.
The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the administrative appellate body within EOIR, overturned his ruling. They said his credibility determination was made under a “clearly erroneous” standard. The board found Vomacka didn’t give the woman the opportunity to explain discrepancies in her testimony and other issues. “The Immigration Judge went beyond the scope of his duties in questioning the respondent,” the board wrote.
Vomacka isn’t alone in his inflexible approach. Records from the FOIA request reveal that other judges exhibit similar attitudes.
One judge referred to as HKX, who was the subject of 30 complaints (the second highest among the records revealed) had one of his rulings overturned after he ordered a Ugandan woman deported in absentia. Through her lawyer, the woman had filed a motion to move her case from the judge’s court to another, closer to where she had moved recently. The woman’s lawyer told her that she didn’t have to attend a hearing at the immigration court in August 2007. The judge ordered her to be removed from the U.S.
Her lawyer filed a motion to reopen the case, but forgot to include any fees. The judge denied the motion—despite her lawyer’s mistakes—not because it wasn’t justified, but because it was the second time she had tried to reopen her case. The BIA disagreed with the judge, reopened the case and transferred it closer to where she was living.
Another judge, referred to as PBZ in the documents, had 32 complaints lodged against him, the highest number in the suit. One complaint details a 2008 hearing during which the judge quizzed a Guatemalan man about why he chose to have a child out of wedlock.
“So your current girlfriend is the mother of your two children and your unborn child?” the judge asked, with the respondent answering yes. “Why haven’t you married her?” the judge continued.
“What does your church teach you about living with a woman and having children with her without being married?” the judge later asked. He eventually ordered the man deported.
The Guatemalan father, who was asking for a cancellation of his removal, appealed the judge’s decision. The BIA found the judge exceeded his authority and the comments gave “the appearance of lacking impartiality.” The case was then sent to a different judge.
One judge, titled OPU and who received 29 complaints, was ordered to attend anger management classes multiple times. In one case in 2008, the judge got into an argument with an immigration attorney about a woman’s mental fitness to represent herself.
“I believe that she’s an emotional person,” the judge told the woman’s lawyer after they requested the case be put on hold for a psychological evaluation. “I’m not sure I’d characterize her as mentally disturbed.”
“I don’t think it’s in my position, or the trial attorney’s position or your position to determine her mental instability or her incapacity at this time,” the lawyer later responded after arguing over the woman’s mental health. “In all my experience of the many cases that I’ve done, I have not experienced such an emotional client that was unable to answer simple questions.”
“I don’t care if she doesn’t meet her burden because she’s a deaf-mute, if she is Helen Keller, it doesn’t matter. She has the burden,” the judge continued. The issue, the judge felt, was that despite her mental state and inability to adequately represent herself, she didn’t reach the burden of proof that allows her to remain in the country. The BIA disagreed with the judge’s conclusion and allowed her to get the psychological exam.
EOIR is currently in the process of expanding the number of immigration judges to meet the backlog of immigration cases, which, according to TRAC, has surpassed one million. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped up the hiring of immigration judges and dozens have been sworn in across the country this year. Sessions has aimed to reduce the amount of time it takes to hire immigration judges by 50 percent.
The records reviewed by Documented are the product of a November 2012 FOIA request that AILA filed with the EOIR seeking complaints filed against immigration judges and any potential resolutions. The request was filed with the intention of learning how EOIR investigates and resolves complaints alleging misconduct by immigration judges. EOIR denied the request, setting off a five-year legal battle starting in 2013, when the public interest legal organization Public Citizen joined AILA in filing a lawsuit against the agency. Eventually, EOIR released nearly 800 heavily redacted complaints against dozens of immigration judges.
The filings referred to the judges by three letter acronyms and stripped the documents of any other identifying information. Public Citizen and AILA took EOIR back to court and demanded to know the names behind the codes. The court finally ordered EOIR to release the names in November. AILA shared only the code related to complaints about Vomacka with Documented.
“EOIR’s release of the judges’ names is an important step in ensuring accountability and transparency in the current immigration court system,” said Kate Voigt, associate director of government relations at AILA. “While many judges conduct themselves professionally, there are some who have repeatedly failed to meet the high standards of judicial conduct—and in so doing they dishonor the robes they wear and the office they inhabit.”
Before the codes were released, an immigration lawyer based in Long Island named Bryan Johnson, stumbled onto a secret buried in the documents. He was scrolling through the files when he decided to switch programs he used for viewing PDFs. Suddenly, the redactions disappeared, he told The Daily Beast in January 2017 and quickly posted the identifying details for the acronyms online.
An EOIR spokesperson told the news site that “The ‘key’ the private attorney released does not accurately pair immigration judges with complaints that have been filed. The ‘key’ itself, therefore, is the inaccuracy.”
Documented was unable to review the other EOIR documents sent to Public Citizen, but all of the Vomacka files correspond with the key Johnson posted on his law firm’s website.
Most of the complaints filed against Vomacka led to follow-up action by the EOIR, according to records released in the lawsuit. On one instance, he received a written reprimand. Eleven complaints resulted in Vomacka being ordered to have written or oral counseling. Seven of his rulings were overturned and remanded to other judges. Ali’s case resulted in the Office of Professional Responsibility recommending a two-day suspension.
Vomacka ended his tenure this year, according to EOIR spokesman John Martin, who declined to provide further information about his departure.
Support our work
Documented is the only NYC newsroom that creates journalism with and for immigrant communities. Help fuel this mission for $10/month.