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Trump’s New Quota System for Immigration Judges Could Backfire Big Time


It’s easy to assume that in America, court proceedings and other procedural aspects of justice will move along at a relatively reasonable pace.   While bureaucracies aren’t known for their lightning speed, we expect that in this country, individuals will know their fates without remaining for years in legal limbo. When it comes to immigration, however, individuals facing deportation or seeking asylum can, and often do, wait for up to two years before having their day in court.

Immigration cases fall onto something of a legal borderline; as a function of civil (and not criminal) law, they can become hopelessly backlogged without a Constitutional speedy trial mandate to hurry things along. Still, for many, the issues in play are every bit as critically life-changing as would be a criminal disposition. The Trump administration has now offered up a remedy to this problem, and it’s as short-sighted as we’ve come to expect from this White House.

On Friday, the Justice Department notified immigration judges that from here on in, their job performance will be evaluated based on speed. Starting October 1, judges will be required to complete 700 cases a year, with the expectation that fewer than 15% of those decisions will be sent back by a higher court. Those counts are only a slight increase from the average 678 cases seen annually; however, the quota overlooks a major problem with the math – the idea of an “average.” In reality, there is a pretty wide range of number of cases handled by immigration judges – with some handling up to 1500 a year – a fact that means a 700-case quota will be a significant increase for at least some judges. The new quota system is Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ way of clearing what he called an “outrageous” backlog of over 632,000 pending immigration cases.

Mandatory quotas for judges is one of those things that sounds like it might work to increase efficiency – but only to people who know absolutely nothing about the judicial process. Let’s be serious, people. Federal judges aren’t exactly dead weight clogging up the machine of American justice; they are dedicated legal professionals who take their responsibility seriously. That’s what we should want and expect from judges, regardless in which type of court they sit.

To artificially decree that they hurry things up is Trump-administration myopia at its very worst. I know Trump is still billing himself as a government “outsider,” but he’s been involved in enough lawsuits that he should know how it works. Judges set deadlines, they don’t meet them. No court subjects its judges to individual quotas as part of their performance review. Some cases are easy, some cases are complex, and judges take as long as is necessary to dispense justice. That’s just how it works. Forcing judges through arbitrary hoops does nothing but strip those judges of the very authority vital to their very role in government.

True, efforts to improve efficiency in any arena are often met with opposition. In this case, though, it appears that everyone (excepting those who are hoping to score political points) thinks it’s a bad idea.

Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, warns that Trump’s new quota system could actually create an appellate issue:

“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.”

Immigration lawyers are also concerned about how this new quantity-over-quality approach may affect their clients. Law & Crime spoke with immigration attorney Afia Yunus, who said:

“This is a misguided attempt to increase efficiency when all it will do is compromise the integrity of the immigration court. Immigration judges are being treated by the Justice Department as field workers cranking out decisions. Instead, these federal judges should be afforded the time, resources, and judicial independence that all federal judges enjoy. This is yet another example of how our immigration system needs to be reformed.”

There’s no question that a backlog of more than half a million cases is a problem that needs solving. Individuals and families desperately need certainty with regard to immigration; American inability to provide that certainty in a timely manner is proof positive that we’re doing something very wrong. However, zeroing in on judges as the cause this problem is like blaming the pilot when your flight is delayed. Forcing every pilot to fly faster is just as stupid as forcing every judge to clear cases faster – even if our administration is willing to take the risk when solely immigrants are aboard.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos