On April 18 the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on strengthening the Immigration Court system. Several organizations, including the American Bar Association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, recommended that Congress make the immigration courts independent courts under Article I of the Constitution. Congress should do so without delay, especially in light of the attorney general’s May 17 decision in Matter of Castro-Tum eliminating administrative closure.
People on both sides of the political divide agree that the immigration courts are overburdened. The approximately 350 immigration judges who work in about 60 courts around the country are currently tasked with reviewing close to 700,000 cases. The Trump administration has made several, mostly misguided, attempts to fix this backlog. However, as Former Chairman of the BIA Paul Schmidt stated recently ‘‘Nobody… can fix this system while it remains under the control of DOJ.’’
In recent months the administration has made unprecedented attacks on the judicial independence of immigration judges, including policy changes that are in direct contradiction to the recommendations of an April 2017 Booz Allen Hamilton report commissioned by the Department of Justice.
On March 30 the administration instituted a case completion quota of 700 a year for a “satisfactory” performance rating. This amounts to each Immigration Judge needing to complete on average three cases every working day. For judges who have dockets with a high number of asylum cases, for example, this arbitrary requirement will push them to expedite cases in ways that are extremely dangerous to due process.
As the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Judge Tabaddor, testified at the congressional hearing, there has been ‘‘no quota ever, in any court; somehow implicit in [designating a quota] is that judges are not doing enough… [However, w]e should focus on [is] how we can support our judges.’’
Over the last six years I have directly or indirectly litigated over a hundred asylum cases, and in 95 percent of the cases the hearing takes about 3.5 hours, or the equivalent of one working morning or afternoon. This does not include the time a judge needs in camera to review the hundreds of pages of evidence in the record. In reality, a judge who completes one asylum case a day, and not three, is already extremely efficient.
The real problem is not with how hard-working the immigration judges are. As I explained in a 2016 article, part of the problem lies with understaffing. Instead of hiring a reasonable number of judges and law clerks, and otherwise investing in supporting the work of our Immigration Judges, the Administration is eliminating administrative closure and calling for administratively closed cases to be put back on the docket, actions that only serve to raise the number of pending cases.
If, for example, the Department of Justice puts all the administratively closed cases back on the docket, it would increase the court backlog to over 1,000,000. These are cases of crime victims and DACA recipients and others where an immigration judge has already determined that it would not be a good use of judicial resources, or in the public interest, to litigate, usually because the person is eligible for some non-judicial form of immigration relief and has a case pending with USCIS. Re-calendaring these cases would not only unnecessarily increase the work of taxpayer-funded DHS Trial Attorneys but it would add more pressure to the already overworked immigration judges.
The attorney general has also stepped into managing the immigration courts by restricting the use of continuances, which in the fast-paced detention context where my organization works are often necessary in order to have time to obtain crucial pieces of evidence and otherwise prepare for trial.
While the attorney general is the boss and is responsible for the judges’ performance, he should have a little more faith in the good judgement of his immigration judges, who, unlike the attorney general, are looking at the situation-specific issues in the individual case before them.
While the helpfulness of the attorney general’s methods for carrying out his job are questionable at best, the underlying problem remains that, regardless of our political opinion on the administration’s policies, those policies are affecting the judicial independence of our immigration courts and putting due process in jeopardy.
What the attorney general says matters to the immigration judges working under him. In one recent case, the immigration judge cited him as saying there is a lot of fraud in the asylum process as evidence that the asylum seeker was lying. Not only was the attorney general’s statement not based on facts — at least not on facts made publicly available, or that anyone even claimed exist, and which statement runs in stark contrast to my six years of on-the-ground experience — but that statement had nothing to do with the truthfulness of the individual asylum seeker present before the court.
Additionally, as stated by the former president of the National Association of Immigration Judges Dana Marks, there is a ‘‘conflict of interest between the judicial and prosecutorial functions [of the Department of Justice that] creates a significant (and perhaps even fatal) flaw to the immigration court structure.’’
It appears that the administration is looking for specific outcomes in cases with little regard to the merits of the claim. The attorney general has certified an unprecedented number cases to himself for review with the idea that he might change the decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals. This extraordinary power of one political-appointee to overturn the decision of trained immigration judges is fundamentally at odds with judicial independence.
Unfortunately, it appears that not only the review and firing of judges has become political, but their hiring too. Information has surfaced that the Department of Justice is asking candidates questions about their political party affiliation, their position on same-sex relationships, and their opinion on abortion; preparing internal memos on those whose immigration views that do not align with the administration’s policies; slowing down review of applications where there are ideological differences; and withdrawing employment offers or delaying start dates by up to a one and a half years.
Making judicial decisions subject to the political whims of the times, and not dependent on the accurate execution of the law, is a serious risk to the checks-and-balances system underlying our democracy. The need for independent immigration courts has never been clearer.
Sara Ramey is an immigration attorney and the executive director at the Migrant Center for Human Rights in San Antonio, Texas. The views in this article are not intended to reflect the official position of the organization.