Danny Vinik reports:
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed attorneys from the Department of Justice on Tuesday to increase the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, including laws against unlawful entry, human smuggling and identity fraud. It was yet another escalation of the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and immigrant-rights groups blasted the policy changes as ineffective and potentially illegal.
For all their opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration agenda, though, advocates actually back one of the new policies: the increased support for the immigration courts.
Sessions announced that DOJ will seek to add 75 immigration judges to the courts over the next year and will implement reforms to speed up the hiring process. These changes address a real problem with the immigration system—a nearly 600,000-case backlog at the immigration courts—and the move was a rare occasion in which advocates applauded the administration, though they were concerned how Sessions would implement the changes.
“We are very happy at the notion of increasing the amount of immigration judges and being able to address the backlog,” said Jennifer Quigley, an immigration expert at Human Rights First. “But as a senator and now as AG, we’ve always had concerns that Sessions’ motivation is to increase the number of deportations.”
. . . .
Experts largely blame Congress for the backlog, since lawmakers significantly increased resources for immigration enforcement without a commensurate increase in funding for the immigration courts. But in recent years, Congress has increased the number of authorized immigration judges, most recently in 2016 when it provide funding for an additional 55 judges, raising the authorized number from 319 to 374. However, even with enough money, EOIR has struggled to quickly hire judges, as the hiring process can take more than a year and retirements have created additional openings. Currently, there are 312 immigration judges nationwide, a significant increase over a year ago but still far below authorized levels. Trump’s budget blueprint proposed funding 449 judges in fiscal 2018, a significant increase that could find bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
More important than the request for additional judges, however, may be the hiring reforms. EOIR and DOJ both declined to comment on how the Justice Department was reforming the hiring process for immigration judges. Speaking to border patrol personnel at the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday, Sessions provided few details. “Today, I have implemented a new, streamlined hiring plan,” he said. “It requires just as much vetting as before, but reduces the timeline, reflecting the dire need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts.”
Advocates worry that the hiring process could become politicized, with judges brought on who want to implement specific policies instead of fairly enforcing the law. “The idea of onboarding judges quicker and having more judges is a great thing,” said Joshua Breisblatt, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council. “But we need to see what it looks like, that it won’t be political.” The language in the budget blueprint was particularly concerning, advocates said, because it seemed to indicate that the courts are a tool for increasing deportations rather than a neutral arbiter of immigration claims.
“We were not happy with the way it was framed,” said Quigley.
It’s not an unrealistic concern. Immigration judges are technically employees of the Department of Justice, a structure that inherently creates a conflict of interest, since their job is to rule on immigration cases that are pushed by DOJ prosecutors, whereas most of the judiciary is independent. Advocates and the immigration judges union have long pushed to remove the immigration courts from the DOJ. And during the Bush administration, a DOJ investigation found that several immigration judges received their jobs due to their political connections, a scandal that serves as a warning today.
Despite those concerns, experts hope that Sessions and EOIR will undertake the hiring process in a timely and impartial manner, filling the bench with qualified judges who have enough time to understand the cases before them. As Sandweg said, “It’s something that’s long overdue.” In such a world, the additional judges could reduce the backlog, increasing the number of deportations, while spending more time on complicated asylum cases, giving asylum seekers more time to fairly present their cases and receive careful consideration.
In such a world, it’s possible that both the Trump administration and advocates could come out happy—a scenario almost impossible to imagine today.”
Sessions is certainly right to address the ridiculous 18-24 month hiring cycle for U.S. Immigration Judges, and should get credit for making reform one of his top priorities. He also should be credited with focusing attention on the 542,000 case backlog, something that the Obama Administration seemed to have preferred to ignore as it mushroomed in front of their eyes. (As I said in this blog yesterday, I’m not convinced that even the 125 additional Immigration Judges proposed by Sessions over the next two years will effectively address a pending docket of that magnitude: http://wp.me/p8eeJm-FQ. But, it’s a start.)
However, the devil is in the details. And, the details of Session’s “streamlined judicial hiring” have not been made public, although the Attorney General said they were “implemented” on April 11.
Remarkably, I have learned that as of today, April 12, both EOIR Management and the union representing U.S. Immigration Judges (of which I am a retired member) were “totally in the dark” about the contents of the plan. That means it was “hatched’ at the DOJ without any meaningful input from those in the U.S. Immigration Court system or the court’s “stakeholders” — those representing the interests of the hundred of thousands of individuals with cases currently before the court or who might come before the court in the future. That’s troubling. It also appears that members of Congress had not been briefed on the hiring changes.
What’s even more troubling is that it’s not just about the inexcusably slow and bureaucratic hiring practices of the DOJ and EOIR. It’s also about results. During the Obama Administration, although officials claimed that the system was “merit-based” the results suggest that it was anything but.
According to informed sources who have done the math, an amazing 88% of those selected were from government backgrounds and 64% were from ICE, which prosecutes cases before the Immigration Court. I have had reports of numerous superbly qualified individuals from the private sector whose applications were rejected or put on indefinite hold without any explanation.
So, it looks like the many-layered, glacially slow, inefficient, overly bureaucratized process used by the DOJ and EOIR was actually an elaborate “smokescreen” for a system that was heavily weighted toward selecting “government insiders” and against selecting those who had gained experience by representing immigrants or advocating for their rights. The “Appellate Division” of the U.S. Immigration Court, the BIA — which is supposed to be the “top administrative court” in immigration — hasn’t had a judge appointed from outside the Government since 2000, more than 16 years and two full administrations ago!
Based on performance to date, I’m not particularly optimistic that AG Jeff Sessions is going to make the changes necessary to establish a true merit-based system for Immigration Judge hiring that, in turn, will create an immigration judiciary representing more diverse backgrounds and experiences. But, hope springs eternal, and I’d be happy if he proves my skepticism to be wrong.
Only time will tell. But, the quality and composition of the “Sessions era” immigration judiciary is something that everyone who cares about due process and justice in America should watch closely.