Evan Vucci / AP

Immigration Judges Are 'Shocked and Disappointed' by Trump’s Disparagements

The president is misinformed or mistaken, union leader says.

Federal immigration judges were “shocked” and “dismayed” by President Trump’s recent criticisms of their ethics and general necessity, according to the head of their labor group.

In recent days Trump suggested that the judges, federal employees housed within the Justice Department, were vulnerable to corruption. Expanding the bench from the roughly 330 who currently serve, Trump said last week and repeated on Monday, would lead to widespread “graft.” Trump also appeared to question the need for the judges at all, saying the government should not offer due process to migrants and instead invest its resources in border security.

“The judges were quite shocked and disappointed,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a 13-year veteran of the executive branch bench, “because we hold ourselves up to the highest standards of ethical conduct.”

The judges’ decisions go through immense scrutiny, the court proceedings are open to the public and there is a process in place for complaints about impropriety, she explained. “There is no evidence or claims that we are aware of that we are on the take anywhere,” said Tabaddor, who is hearing from her cohorts this week at a conference for her union’s members.

Trump also claimed that an undefined “they” suggested to him that the Justice Executive Office of Immigration Review hire 5,000-6,000 new judges. It is unclear where he received that request, but such an increase would represent a remarkable transformation of the EOIR. Congress has authorized another 150 immigration judges, a 45 percent increase over current levels. Even if Tabaddor and her union’s “Christmas wish” came true, Justice would employ around 1,000-1,200 judges. That target would itself be a difficult one to hit, as it currently takes EOIR two years to fill vacancies.  

“It seems the president was perhaps given misinformation or was, perhaps, mistaken,” Tabaddor said.

She added NAIJ’s estimate was roughly derived based on projected workloads and the current backlog of 700,000 cases. Justice has declined to engage in “court weighing” to properly assess how many cases judges facing diverse types of hearings can complete. Instead, the department has implemented a blanket annual quota of 700 cases. The judges’ union and other groups such as the American Bar Association have condemned that mandate, saying arbitrary numbers should not affect performance evaluation and ultimately a judge’s bottom line.

In addition to asking, “can you imagine the graft that must take place?” at immigration courts, Trump went on to say, “We don't want judges, we want security on the border. We don't want people coming in.” He tweeted on Saturday that the country should do away with immigration judges altogether and instead immediately deport all migrants “with no judges or court cases.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders backed up that statement on Monday.

“Just because you don’t see a judge, doesn’t mean you aren’t receiving due process,” Sanders said.

That decision, however, may not be up to Trump. International treaties that have been ratified by Congress mandate court proceedings for asylum seekers, Tabaddor noted. Court precedent also requires due process rights for non-citizens in the United States.

“That kind of requirement cannot be met by a law enforcement official,” Tabaddor said.

Trump’s call to eliminate federal immigration judges, or at least not add any new ones, is a departure even from his own suggestions. His fiscal 2018 budget proposal included hiring 75 additional EOIR judges.

The president’s comments, taken in conjunction with the newly imposed quota system, are having an impact across the federal immigration bench.

“The judges’ morale is the lowest it’s been in years,” Tabaddor said. To “argue or pretend like they’re not an integral part of the system and that they’re not an integral part of the solution” only exacerbates that problem, she added.