The Trump administration will pressure U.S. immigration judges to process cases faster by establishing a quota system tied to their annual performance reviews, according to new Justice Department directives.
The judges will be expected to clear at least 700 cases a year to receive a “satisfactory” performance rating, a standard that their union called an “unprecedented” step that risks undermining judicial independence and opens the courts to potential challenges.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised to stiffen immigration enforcement partly by moving more aggressively to clear a backlog of more than 600,000 cases pending before the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the federal court system that adjudicates immigration cases.
Some immigrants facing deportation wait years for a court date, but they are typically authorized to work in the United States to support themselves during that time, an arrangement that critics view as an incentive to illegal immigration.
According to a copy of the guidelines, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, the purpose of the new quota system will be to ensure “cases are completed in a timely, efficient, and effective manner.” The system sets up additional bench marks, penalizing those who refer more than 15 percent of certain cases to higher courts, or judges who schedule hearing dates too far apart on their calendars.
Immigration judges complete 678 cases in an average year, said Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley, but he said some judges clear well over 1,000.
“The big takeaway is that this is the equivalent of completing three cases a day, so it’s not that big of a lift,” O’Malley said in an interview.
Immigration cases can vary widely in complexity and the length of time required to adjudicate them. O’Malley said that judges who fail to meet their quotas can appeal to supervisors if their numbers fall short of the Justice Department’s expediency goals.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review is part of the executive branch, not the judicial branch, so it functions in part as an arm of U.S. law enforcement even though its judges are supposed to have full independence.
Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the quota system could introduce an “appealable” issue and invite legal challenges.
“It could call into question the integrity and impartiality of the court if a judge’s decision is influenced by factors outside the facts of the case, or if motions are denied out of a judge’s concern about keeping his or her job,” Tabaddor said.
“We don’t know of any other court whose judges are subject to individual quotas and deadlines as part of performance reviews and evaluations,” she said.
The Trump administration is seeking to hire dozens of new judges per year to tackle the immigration backlog, an approach that Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said would be a more sensible course.
“The quota system proposed would raise questions about judicial independence and the possibility of judges basing rulings on factors other than the law and the facts in specific cases before them, such as the judges’ self-interest in his or her own professional advancement,” Tobias said.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.