We need an independent immigration court system

We need an independent immigration court system
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More than 200 years ago, the framers of the Constitution distributed federal power among three branches of government to ensure that no single branch was unchecked. Today, we are seeing that principle eroded as Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsInterior chief Zinke to leave administration Trump, Christie met to discuss chief of staff job: report Chief justice of California Supreme Court leaves GOP over Kavanaugh confirmation MORE wields his considerable authority over the immigration courts to advance a transparently anti-immigrant agenda. In the process, he is bending the system to its breaking point.  

Many Americans are not aware that our nation’s immigration courts, unlike other courts, are a part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) — the very same law-enforcement agency that is charged with prosecuting immigration cases in federal courts.

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Just as it would be unacceptable for a district attorney to supervise trial judges, it should be unacceptable for the Attorney General to control the jurisprudence, docket management, and even the terms of employment of immigration judges. This has long been recognized as a fundamental structural flaw in our immigration court system, but Congress has so far failed to rectify the situation and create a new system that is truly independent.

This flaw in our judicial system has made it vulnerable to the extreme policies of the Attorney General. One such policy goes into effect today, Oct. 1—the imposition of numerical quotas to measure the performance of immigration judges. These quotas will require judges to adjudicate a minimum of 700 cases each year or possibly face disciplinary action. The National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) opposes the move, calling it a “death knell for judicial independence.” The judges argue that quotas will compromise the integrity of the court, undermine due process, and add to the court’s backlog, which now exceeds 700,000 cases. In other words, the quotas are unethical, unfair, and inefficient.

The quotas are just one of many policies DOJ has implemented in rapid succession over the past year. In several precedent-setting decisions, the Attorney General has restricted asylum law so as to deny protection to nearly all survivors of domestic violence or gang-related persecution, and stripped immigration judges of nearly all power to terminate, administratively close, or continue cases. Across the board, these and other DOJ policies under the Attorney General’s leadership have emphasized speed and quantity rather than well-reasoned decisions.

Rushing judges to make snap decisions can culminate in the wrongful deportation of people who have valid claims for asylum or other legal relief. In the process, U.S. citizens are separated from their loved ones. And the integrity of our courts — along with their ability to ensure due process and deliver justice — is being undermined.  

America needs a stand-alone, independent court that will administer our nation’s immigration laws free from political manipulation. The solution is for Congress to establish an independent Article I immigration court, a structure that has been used to create our nation’s tax court and veterans claims court.

An independent immigration court is not a radical or novel idea; it has widespread support, including endorsements by the NAIJ, the American Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association, and the National Association of Women Judges. Both Republicans and Democrats have called for such reforms for many years. Today, over 1,000 members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association are sending a letter to the Attorney General asking that he support reform.  

America needs courts that will exercise impartial, neutral, and fair judgement and ensure that decisions are based on law and fact. Congress must step up to the plate and restore integrity and due process to our immigration system by passing legislation to establish an Article I immigration court.

Ben Johnson is the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.