President Biden took office with a promise to “restore humanity and American values” to the immigration system. If he’s going to succeed, it will take more than shutting down construction on his predecessor’s border wall. The most formidable obstacle to making the U.S. immigration system more humane and functional is invisible to most Americans: the nation’s broken, overwhelmed immigration court system.
Every day, hundreds of immigration judges slog through thousands of cases, unable to keep up with a crushing backlog that has more than doubled since 2016. Many cases involve complex claims of asylum by those who fear for their safety in their home countries. Most end up in legal limbo, waiting years for even an initial hearing. Some people sit in detention centers for months or longer, despite posing no risk to the public. None have the right to a lawyer, which few could afford anyway.
“The system is failing, there is no doubt about it,” one immigration judge said in 2018. As long as the system is failing, it will be impossible to achieve any broad-based immigration reform — whether proposed by Mr. Biden or anyone else.
The problem with these courts isn’t new, but it became significantly worse under the Trump administration. When he took office in 2017, President Donald Trump inherited a backlog of about 540,000 cases, already a major crisis. The administration could have used numerous means to bring that number down. Instead, Mr. Trump’s team drove it up. By the time he left office in January, the backlog had ballooned to nearly 1.3 million pending cases.
How did that number get so high? Some of the increase was the result of ramped up enforcement of immigration laws, leading to many more arrests and detentions that required court attention. The Trump administration also reopened hundreds of thousands of low-priority cases that had been shelved under President Barack Obama. Finally, Mr. Trump starved the courts of funding and restricted how much control judges had over their own dockets, making the job nearly impossible for those judges who care about providing fair and impartial justice to immigrants.
At the same time, Mr. Trump hired hundreds of new judges, prioritizing ideology over experience, such as by tapping former Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors and others who would help convert the courts into a conveyor belt of deportation. In 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed an annual quota of 700 cases per judge. One judge testified before a House committee last year that Mr. Trump’s system was “a widget factory management model of speed over substance.”
By some measures, the plan worked: In 2020, the immigration courts denied 72 percent of asylum claims, the highest portion ever, and far above the denial rates during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
If the goal was to empty the United States of all those asylum seekers, Mr. Trump clearly failed, as evidenced by the huge backlog he left Mr. Biden. But the ease with which he imposed his will on the immigration courts revealed a central structural flaw in the system: They are not actual courts, at least not in the sense that Americans are used to thinking of courts — as neutral arbiters of law, honoring due process and meting out impartial justice. Nor are immigration judges real judges. They are attorneys employed by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is housed in the Department of Justice. It’s hard to imagine a more glaring conflict of interest than the nation’s top law-enforcement agency running a court system in which it regularly appears as a party.
The result is that immigration courts and judges operate at the mercy of whoever is sitting in the Oval Office. How much money they get, what cases they focus on — it’s all politics. That didn’t used to be such a problem, because attorneys general rarely got involved in immigration issues. Then Mr. Trump came along and reminded everyone just how much power the head of the executive branch has when it comes to immigration.
The solution is clear: Congress needs to take immigration courts out of the Justice Department and make them independent, similar to other administrative courts that handle bankruptcy, income-tax and veterans’ cases. Immigration judges would then be freed from political influence and be able to run their dockets as they see fit, which could help reduce the backlog and improve the courts’ standing in the public eye. Reform advocates, including the Federal Bar Association, have pushed the idea of a stand-alone immigration court for years without success. The Trump administration made the case for independence that much clearer.
In the meantime, there are shorter-term fixes that could help restore a semblance of impartiality and professionalism to the immigration courts.
First, the system must be properly staffed and funded to deal with its backlog. One way to do that is by hiring more judges, and staff members to support them. Today there are about 550 immigration judges carrying an average of almost 3,000 cases each, which makes it nearly impossible to provide anything like fair and consistent justice. Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland asked Congress for a 21 percent increase in the court system’s budget. That’s a start, but it doesn’t come close to solving the problem. Even if 600 judges were able to get through 700 cases a year each — as Mr. Sessions ordered them to — it would take years to clear up the existing backlog, and that’s before taking on a single new case.
This is why another important fix is to stop a large number of those cases from being heard in the first place. The Justice Department has the power to immediately remove as many as 700,000 cases from the courts’ calendar, most of them for low-level immigration violations — people who have entered the country illegally, most from Mexico or Central America, or those who have overstayed a visa. Many of these cases are years old, or involve people who are likely to get a green card. Forcing judges to hear cases like these clutters the docket and makes it hard to focus on the small number of more serious cases, like those involving terrorism or national-security threats, or defendants facing aggravated felony charges. At the moment, barely 1 percent of all cases in the system fall into one of these categories.
A thornier problem is how to stamp out the hard-line anti-immigrant culture that spread throughout the Justice Department under Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions and the former president’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller. For instance, a 2019 department newsletter sent to immigration judges included an anti-Semitic reference and a link to VDare, an anti-immigrant group that regularly publishes white nationalists.
One of Mr. Biden’s first steps in office was to reassign the head of the immigration court system, James McHenry, who played a central role in many of Mr. Trump’s initiatives. But it’s generally hard to fire career civil servants, like the many judges and other officials tapped to promote Mr. Trump’s agenda. The Biden administration can reduce their influence by reassigning them, but this is not a long-term fix. While these judges are subject to political pressures, there can be no true judicial process.
If there’s any silver lining here, it is to be found in Mr. Trump’s overreach. The egregiousness of his administration’s approach to immigration may have accelerated efforts to solve the deeper structural rot at the core of the nation’s immigration courts.
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