US immigration court judges are under pressure from a quota system implemented by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that pushes them to close 700 cases per year as a way to get rid of a huge backlog, the head of the judges' union said on Friday.
It means judges would have an average of about two and a half hours to complete cases – an impossible ask for complex matters that can include hundreds of pages of documents and hours of testimony, Judge Ashley Tabaddor said.
"This is an unprecedented act, which compromises the integrity of the court and undermines the decisional independence of immigration judges," she said in a speech at the National Press Club, in her capacity as head of the union. Ms Tabaddor said the backlog of about 750,000 cases was created in part by government bureaucracy and a neglected immigration court system.
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"Now, the same backlog is being used as a political tool to advance the current law enforcement policies," she said.
Curbing immigration is a signature issue for Donald Trumps government, and the jobs of the nation's more than 300 immigration judges are in the spotlight.
Judges decide whether someone has a legal basis to remain in the country while the government tries to deport them, a process that includes those seeking asylum. Mrs Tabaddor presides in Los Angeles, where she oversees about 2,000 cases, including many involving juveniles.
The judges are employees of the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is overseen by the attorney general – unlike the criminal and civil justice systems where judges operate independently.
Immigration court judges have repeatedly asked for independence, and Mrs Tabaddor brought it up again on Friday, calling the current structure a serious design flaw.
A justice department spokesman said the union has repeatedly tried to block common-sense reforms that would make the judges' jobs better, and the proper home for the courts is where they are right now, under the justice department.
Earlier this year, it sent a memo to immigration judges telling them they would need to clear at least 700 cases a year in order to receive a "satisfactory" rating on their performance evaluations. Mr Sessions has pushed for faster rulings and issued a directive that prevents judges from administratively closing cases in an effort to decrease the backlog by 50 per cent by 2020.
This month, he appointed 44 more judges, the largest class of immigration judges in US history, and is pledged to hire more. He said in a speech to the judges that he would not apologise for asking them to perform "at a high level, efficiently and effectively."
Mrs Tabaddor would not say whether the quotas were putting pressure on judges to deport more people – not just decide cases faster.
"There's certainly no question they're under pressure to complete more cases faster," she said. "I think I would just say listen to the attorney general's remarks and you can decide what messaging is going to be sent."
This summer, Mr Sessions tightened the restrictions on the types of cases that can qualify someone for asylum, making it harder for Central Americans who say they are fleeing the threat of gangs, drug smugglers or domestic violence to pass even the first hurdle for securing US protection.
Immigration lawyers say that has meant more asylum seekers failing interviews with US Citizenship and Immigration Services to establish credible fear of harm in their home countries. They also say that immigration judges are overwhelmingly signing off on those recommendations during appeals, effectively ending what could have been a years-long asylum process almost before it has begun.
President Mr Trump has not been behind the move to bolster the roster of judges. "We shouldn't be hiring judges by the thousands, as our ridiculous immigration laws demand, we should be changing our laws, building the (Mexico) wall, hire border agents and Ice," he said in a tweet in June, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.