Jason “The Asylumist” Dzubow writes:
“In a little noted, but quite extraordinary move, the National Association of Immigration Judges (“NAIJ”) has asked Congress to protect its members (Immigration Judges) from the Trump Administration (their employer). The reason? The Trump Administration is seeking to “evaluate judges’ performance based on numerical measures or production quotas.” According to NAIJ, “If EOIR is successful in tying case completion quotas to judge performance evaluations, it could be the death knell for judicial independence in the Immigration Courts.” “Judges can face potential termination for good faith legal decisions of which their supervisors do not approve.”
EOIR is developing a more efficient way to adjudicate cases (and it comes with a free drink!).
Let’s start with a bit of background. NAIJ is a voluntary organization of United States Immigration Judges. It also is the recognized representative of Immigration Judges for collective bargaining purposes(in other words, the IJs’ union): “Our mission is to promote the independence of Immigration Judges and enhance the professionalism, dignity, and efficiency of the Immigration Courts, which are the trial-level tribunals where removal proceedings initiated by the Department of Homeland Security are conducted.”
According to NAIJ, the most important regulation governing IJ decision-making is 8 C.F.R. § 1003.10(b). This regulation requires that immigration judges exercise judicial independence. Specifically, “in deciding the individual cases before them, and subject to the applicable governing standards, immigration judges shall exercise their independent judgment and discretion and may take any action consistent with their authorities under the Act and regulations that is appropriate and necessary for the disposition of such cases.” 8 C.F.R. §1 003.10(b).
Up until now, IJs were exempted from quantitative performance evaluations. According to NAIJ, “The basis for this exemption was rooted in the notion that ratings created an inherent risk of actual or perceived influence by supervisors on the work of judges, with the potential of improperly affecting the outcome of cases.”
The Trump Administration is now moving to change the way it evaluates IJs. The main reason for the change is the Administration’s goal of reducing the very-large backlog of cases in Immigration Court (currently, there are about 640,000 pending cases). The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR – the office that administers the nation’s Immigration Courts) recently announced a plan to “transform its institutional culture to emphasize the importance of completing cases.” In other words, EOIR will judge its judges based–at least in part–on the number of cases completed.
NAIJ has called this development “alarming” and a threat to judicial independence. Why? Because when judges are forced to complete a certain number of cases, they may be unable to devote the necessary time to each case. As a result, the ability to make proper, well-thought-out decisions will suffer.
This is already a problem in Immigration Court. One IJ famously quipped that his job involved adjudicating death penalty cases in a traffic court setting. And so pushing judges to do more cases in less time will potentially impact the alien’s due process rights, and the integrity of our Immigration Courts.
NAIJ has long believed that the system needs a “structural overhaul” and has advocated for converting the Immigration Courts into Article I courts. Article I refers to the first article in the U.S. Constitution, the section on legislative (i.e., Congressional) powers. The idea is that Congress would establish an independent immigration court, much like it created a tax court and a court of veterans appeal. Such a court would be independent of the Executive Branch–the branch of government tasked with enforcing immigration law (currently, IJs are employees of the Department of Justice, a part of the Executive Branch).
NAIJ recognizes that creating Article I immigration courts “may not be feasible right now,” but it nevertheless urges Congress to protect the nation’s IJs from the new Trump Administration policy:
Congress can… easily and swiftly resolve this problem through a simple amendment to the civil service statute on performance reviews. Recognizing that performance evaluations are antithetical to judicial independence, Congress exempted Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) from performance appraisals and ratings by including them in the list of occupations exempt from performance reviews in 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2)(D). This provision lists ALJs as one of eight categories (A through H) of employees who are excluded from the requirement of performance appraisals and ratings. To provide that same exemption to Immigration Judges, all that would be needed is an amendment to 5 U.S.C. § 4301(2), which would add a new paragraph (I) listing Immigration Judges in that list of exempt employees.
The fact that IJs themselves are concerned about the Administration’s move is worrying. The Immigration Judges I know are conscientious and take their jobs very seriously (in contrast to the Trump Administration, which seems utterly lacking in seriousness). If EOIR is making it more difficult for IJs to do their duty, as they understand it, then something is clearly wrong.
Perhaps the IJs’ concerns are overblown. Maybe EOIR will implement the new case completion standards in a way that does not damage judicial independence or due process. But given the Administration’s track record in general, and the inexperienced acting director appointed to head EOIR, it’s difficult to have much confidence in the new policy. Since Congress is unlikely to act on NAIJ’s request for protection, I suppose we will see soon enough how these changes affect the Immigration Courts.
Finally, in my opinion, EOIR has largely misdiagnosed the problem. While some delay may be caused by IJs kicking the can down the road, or by aliens “playing” the system, most delay is systematic–it is caused by reshuffling Administration priorities, which affect how DHS and DOJ schedule cases. I doubt that imposing numerical quotas on IJs will do much to improve the situation. Other solutions–facilitating pre-trial conferences, reforming the Master Calendar system, better use of technology, imposition of costs, premium processing for certain applicants–might be more effective. Everyone agrees that reducing the backlog is a worthy goal, but case completion requirements are probably not the best way to achieve that end.”
“Extraordinary” to be sure! Folks, this isn’t the Ninth Circuit or even the Seventh, Second, or Fourth Circuit, all of which from time to time have “stood tall” for the Due Process rights of migrants.
For those unfamiliar with the process, the U.S. immigration Court is a “captive Administrative Court” functioning as part of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) rather as an independent judiciary established under Article III or Article I of the U.S. Constitution.
For the past 17 years, the DOJ (with the exception of an ill-fated move by the Bush II Administration to hand out Immigration Judgeships as political rewards to their faithful) has gone out of its way to insure that those selected as Immigration Judges have a record demonstrating a “commitment to achieving agency priorities.” Translated from bureaucratese, that means that they understand the DHS immigration enforcement objectives and will not “rock the boat” by expanding or recognizing any new rights for migrants unless given permission to do so by the DOJ or DHS.
Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a judiciary where the overwhelming number of new U.S, immigration Judges appointed since 2000 — nearly 90% — come from “safe” government backgrounds, primarily from the DHS. Moreover, no “Appellate Immigration Judge” (or, “Board Member”) at the BIA has been appointed directly from outside the U.S. Government since the pre-21st Century “Schmidt Era” at the BIA. (For “EOIR trivia buffs,” the last two outside appointments to the BIA in 2000 were the late Hon. Juan P. Osuna and the Hon. Cecelia M. Expenoza who was exiled along with me and others during the “Ashcroft Purge” of 2003.)
So, we’re dealing with a basically conservative, government-oriented judiciary of “non-boat rockers” who mostly achieved and retained their present judicial positions by “knowing and doing what the boss wanted” and making sure that any “deviations” were within limits that would be tolerated.
Yes, it’s OK to grant some asylum cases, particularly from Africa or the Middle East, over DHS objections; but “watch out” if you start granting lots of asylum to folks from the Northern Triangle or Mexico for whom the big “NOT WELCOME SIGN” has been hung out by the last three Administrations, or if you accept any new “particular social groups” which Administrations tend to view with fearful eyes as potentially “opening the floodgates” of protection to those who sorely need and can easily access it (in other words, to those whom the Geneva Refugee Convention actually was intended to protect.)
So, this isn’t a judiciary that normally would be expected to “buck the system.” Indeed, although the world has probably never been worse for refugees since World War II, the Immigration Courts seem to have inexplicably but dutifully reduced asylum grants since the clearly xenophobic, anti-refugee, and anti-asylum Trump Administration assumed office and Gonzo began delivering his anti-asylum, anti-lawyer, anti-immigrant rants.
Therefore, the threat to the limited judicial independence that U.S. Immigration Judges possess under the regulations (which haven’t prevented occasional “reassignments” for ideological or political reasons in the past) has to be presumed both real and immediate to prompt this group to take the risky action of publicly seeking protection. After all, Gonzo could potentially “retaliate” by further limiting the judges’ authority, further jacking up the already astronomically high stress levels under which the judges operate, or “reassigning” “unreliable” judges to more mundane or unattractive positions within the DOJ (sometimes known as “hallwalker” positions).
It’s definitely a further sign of an unhealthy judicial system on the verge of collapse. Before that happens, and 650,000+ additional cases spew forth into other parts of our justice system, it would be wise of Congress to make at least some immediate reforms to preserve independence and due process within the U.S. immigration Courts.
I also agree with Jason that attorneys and respondents are not the major problem driving uncontrolled backlogs in the U.S. immigration Courts. No, it’s all about “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” (“ADR”) generated by EOIR itself at the behest of its political handlers at the DOJ.
But, I don’t agree with Jason’s statement that EOIR has merely “misdiagnosed” the problem. No, EOIR and DOJ know exactly what the problem is, because they created it (egged on, no doubt by DHS and sometimes the White House).
Gonzo and EOIR are intentionally misrepresenting and misusing data to hide the truth about how screwed up the system has become because of the DOJ’s toxic combination of administrative incompetence with improper political and enforcement motives. In other words, DOJ is attempting to cover up its own “fraud, waste, and abuse” of public funds.
Even worse, and more reprehensible, Gonzo is attempting disingenuously to shift the blame to respondents and their overworked attorneys who are more often than not the actual victims of the scam being pulled off by the DOJ as part of the Trump Administration’s xenophobic, White Nationalist campaign to reduce the precious rights of asylum seekers and others. We can’t let him get away with it!
JUST SAY NO TO GONZO!