SAN FRANCISCO — Buoyed by a new president's promise to make the federal government more open, immigrant advocates are fighting to learn more about a fast-growing program to deport illegal immigrants without a court hearing.

Immigration judges in San Francisco ordered more than 3,700 illegal immigrants deported in the past five years without seeing them in person, according to data obtained by a Stanford University law clinic.

Almost 100,000 immigrants nationwide have signed what is called the "stipulated order of removal" while in jail, waiving the right to appear before a judge, agreeing to a speedy deportation and barring themselves from entering the United States for at least a decade.

The law clinic and a coalition of other groups last year wrested from the Department of Justice information about the breadth of the program, but requests to learn more about how it works were rejected.

"We got virtually nothing in terms of how the program is run," said Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center. "You don't run a program of that size without having some instruction to the line workers."

The groups sued in November, asserting the government was concealing records that should be public.

"From what we're hearing, people are being told that the benefit is they can get out of detention sooner," said Jennifer Lee Koh, teaching fellow at the immigrants' rights clinic at Stanford Law School.

"The problem is they're also being forced to sign away their rights. ... We feel they should know what they are getting into when they sign a stipulated order."

One morning last week, Koh implored a San Francisco federal judge presiding over the open records case to consider President Barack Obama's directive to federal agencies the day after his inauguration to "adopt a presumption in favor" of Freedom of Information Act requests. The judge scoffed at Koh's request as he scheduled a full hearing on the case for September.

"I have no power to do that. I don't run the Justice Department," said Judge Charles Breyer. "I'm not here to enforce the president of the United States' policies."

Charles Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department, would not comment on the case while it is still in court.

Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement whose detention officers handle the orders, insist that the program is transparent, voluntary and effective.

The orders are most frequently used at large detention facilities, said Virginia Kice, an immigration spokeswoman. She said agency officers read and thoroughly explain the order, and other options, to those who volunteer to sign them.

"We can make an alien aware of (the stipulated orders)," Kice said. "They, of course, would have to concur. And before it becomes final, it has to be approved by the judge."

Judges never see detained immigrants who have signed the order; they instead review and sign paperwork. Some judges find the process troubling, said Dana Leigh Marks, a San Francisco immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

Marks said some immigrants might be eligible to legally remain in the United States and not know it. Judges usually make those determinations, but when reviewing stipulated orders, they rely on a limited amount of information collected by detention officers — which can lead to "bad information in, bad information out," she said.

The stepped-up enforcement of recent years has overburdened the nation's 214 immigration judges, she said. They adjudicated more than 350,000 cases last year. Stipulated orders, meant to streamline the removal of illegal immigrants from crowded jails, can be time-consuming.

"It's fair to say it's no cure-all, and there's the concern the cure is worse than the illness," Marks said. "You've got the potential for a serious mistake being made. ... If they come into court, the judge can ask them a question."

Marks said she has not handled many of the orders during her time in San Francisco. Immigration judges based in the city preside over deportation cases across Northern California.

Judges based here approved fewer than 4 percent of the stipulated removals nationwide since 1999. The biggest generator of the orders, the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, processed more than 17,000 of them, or about one third of the total. With almost 8,000 orders, the biggest California generator was the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, which holds most illegal immigrants arrested in the Los Angeles area.

Although illegal immigrants began waiving court hearings in the 1990s, it was not until 2004 that the orders became commonplace. That year, 5,481 stipulated orders were signed, steadily increasing to 31,554 in 2007, according to the documents obtained by the law clinic. About 95 percent of those who signed the orders had no lawyers.

Tumlin said how the orders are presented, and who is targeted, and why some regions use them more than others, remains a mystery to those outside of the jails where the orders are signed.

"We really don't know why the numbers are so big in San Francisco," she said. "It doesn't really make sense to us."

Reach Matt O'Brien at 925-977-8463 or mattobrien@bayareanewsgroup.com.