Immigration judges deserve respect — not unfounded criticism

Immigration judges deserve respect — not unfounded criticism
© Getty Images

He just doesn’t get it. During a Tuesday White House briefing, the president said that he’d been told that an additional 5,000 judges will be needed to handle immigration cases. “How do you choose 5,000 judges? Can you imagine the corruption, just from a normal standpoint?” Trump asked.

“Just common sense. Can you imagine the corruption? Go to the barber shop, grab somebody, make him a judge. Everybody’s being made a judge.” At a Monday rally in South Carolina, Trump made similar comments, stating that he was told that thousands of judges were needed at the border. 


Trump’s remarks reveal a startling degree of ignorance about immigration policy in general and immigration judges in particular. His words seem to contradict his stated desire to speed deportations and curb illegal immigration. The fact that he publicly questions the integrity of immigration judges is especially troubling. 


It is difficult to discern who might be telling the president that the country needs 5,000 more immigration judges, and Trump has not clarified who purportedly told him this. But the idea that anyone is asking for 5,000 immigration judges defies reality. As of mid-April, the U.S. had about 335 immigration judges, and Congress has authorized funding for another 150 (an increase of 45 percent over current levels). A bill from a group of Senate Republicans would add an additional 225 immigration judges, while a bill from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) would authorize 375 more judges. If passed, these bills would put the total number of immigration judges somewhere in the 700-850 range, not thousands. Although Trump has suggested that the U.S. is in the process of adding “thousands and thousands” of immigration judges, that is simply not true

Contrary to what Trump asserts, selecting immigration judges is not as simple as grabbing somebody from the barber shop. The work of immigration judges is complicated and often very personal. It has been likened by the former president of the National Association of Immigration Judges to hearing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting. 

Immigration judges routinely decide cases that can have life-or-death consequences, such as when they rule on requests for asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief. Every day, they deal with people who speak some of the more than 250 languages used in immigration courts. In addition to immigration law, these judges need to know family law, international law, and treaties like the 1967 Protocol on Refugees. Many of the people in their courtroom do not have access to counsel. Immigration judges sometimes deal with children, as young as three years old, in court alone. Under such circumstances, these judges must make rulings with tremendous impact on the lives of vulnerable people.

It’s no wonder that being an immigration judge can be a stressful, thankless job. When they rule for the government, they are viewed as heartless or cruel. When they rule in favor of immigrants, they are subject to criticism that they are too lenient and are not enforcing our laws.  

A 2009 study found that immigration judges experienced traumatic stress and burnout at higher rates than prison wardens and busy hospital doctors. Moreover, these judges are not part of the judicial branch of government. Immigration courts are part of the executive branch, which means immigration judges are under the authority of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' Trump's tirades, taunts and threats are damaging our democracy MORE — who this year rolled out case completion quotas for them. Now judges will be required to clear at least 700 cases a year, and Sessions has made it clear that he wants fewer asylum requests granted, and more deportations

There is currently a backlog of about 700,000 immigration cases.  In 2017, on average people waited 677 days before their immigration case was heard, and asylum cases take longer. So the country certainly needs more immigration judges. What the country does not need is the president baselessly linking these judges with corruption and “graft.”

Trump has made such comments repeatedly, and this has proven harmful to the morale of the people charged with carrying out his policies. Sadly, this all fits with the president’s history of unfair personal attacks on judges because of their ethnicity, or because they rule against his administration.   

Trump’s comments about immigration judges are destructive and do nothing to help improve our immigration system. Immigration judges deserve respect — not unfounded, uninformed criticism.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and contributor to and CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.