Immigration judges lash out at Sessions

Immigration judges lash out at Sessions
© Greg Nash

Immigration judges are accusing the Department of Justice (DOJ) of undermining their independence by reassigning cases in order to maximize deportations.

The National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) on Wednesday filed a labor grievance against the DOJ after Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: DOJ concerned about suppression of free speech on college campuses Faith communities are mobilizing against Trump’s family separation policy Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lands book deal MORE overrode an immigration judge’s decision and removed dozens of cases from the judge’s docket.

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The grievance showcases a growing rift between top DOJ officials and immigration judges, who have fewer protections to their judicial independence than other administrative judges. Immigration judges are DOJ employees, rather than members of the judicial branch.

The case that sparked the dispute between the judges and DOJ concerned a juvenile Guatemalan national who had been ordered to appear before Philadelphia immigration Judge Steven A. Morley but failed to do so.

Morley eventually shut down the case, but Sessions ordered him to reopen it. After the judge declined to rule against the juvenile for a second time, DOJ brass sent an immigration judge from Virginia to Philadelphia to take over the case and removed dozens of other cases from his docket.

Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of NAIJ, the labor group that represents immigration judges, said Wednesday’s grievance was filed in response to the DOJ “decision to intercede and remove dozens of cases pending before immigration Judge Morley, based simply on the agency's dissatisfaction with the outcome of Judge Morley's exercise of judgement and discretion in furtherance of due process rights of juveniles."

She added that her group normally does not make its grievances public.

"However, due to the nature of this grievance, NAIJ has been compelled to bring to light the egregious violations of judicial independence that have recently occurred within the agency," Tabaddor told reporters Wednesday.

The public spat between immigration judges and the DOJ illustrates how recent management of immigration courts has brought a longstanding institutional conflict to a head.

Immigration judges are hamstrung, Tabaddor said, because of the close working relationship between the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attorneys who prosecute immigration cases. For example, she said, DOJ officials have "flat out refused" to enact regulations that allow judges to hold DHS attorneys in contempt.

It’s a conflict that has been brewing for years, according to Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) who said immigration courts were put under DOJ supervision during the massive government reorganization after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"I don't think much thought went into where the immigration court would be housed,” he said. “Historically, this is something that hasn't gotten a lot of attention.”

Johnson said the situation has worsened under the Trump administration, with increased tension between the judges and the DOJ.

"The decisions and behavior by the attorney general have shown a spotlight on the fundamental flaws of the system as it exists now," said Johnson, adding that the structural deficiencies and the administration's hard-line immigration policies have made the system "completely lopsided."

Tabaddor agreed, saying things have gotten worse under Sessions, who she says has misused his power to reassign cases. That authority, she said, was created as an administrative tool to fill vacancies, not to achieve results aligned with administration policy.

The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.