Two recent pieces from The Hill and the New York Times have called much-needed attention to the dismal state of immigration courts in this country. Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice (DOJ), which oversees the immigration court system, has thus far failed to root out white supremacy and adequately staff the system, leaving hundreds of thousands of migrants in precarious legal–and physical–positions.
Biden’s DOJ recently hired 17 immigration judges who received their initial offers under Trump through a politicized process that prioritized hiring former prosecutors and counselors for ICE as immigration judges. Stacking immigration courts with right-wing judges appears to have worked; in 2020, immigration courts denied a staggering 72% of asylum claims. The Biden administration has attempted to justify this move by pointing to the 1.3 million backlog in immigration cases, but hiring Trump-vetted judges only guarantees that more of these cases will result in deportation orders.
Due to the Trump administration’s efforts to stack the court, and Garland’s negligence in fighting this trend, there is a lack of diversity of experience among immigration judges. The DOJ has broad discretion in hiring immigration judges, who aren’t judges in any traditional American sense of the term, but rather attorneys employed by the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Garland must commit to thoroughly vetting new judges and explicitly balancing out Trump’s impact on the immigration system by hiring attorneys who have previously represented migrants in court.
Rapidly hiring unqualified judges also doesn’t solve the foundational problems in the immigration court system. The massive backlog of cases is partially due to the increased enforcement of immigration laws under Trump, which Garland could address. The NYT identified as many as 700,000 cases that could be simply removed from the court’s docket, most of which are low-level immigration violations like overstaying a visa. Putting these individuals through the court system, many of whom are likely to get a green card, is a cruel and unnecessary waste of resources.
In addition, Trump starved the immigration court system of needed resources and personnel, increasing individual judges’ caseloads and forcing them to make decisions even more quickly, rather than give each case its due consideration. Understaffing has led to immigrants languishing for months or even years in detention centers. Garland recently requested a 21% increase in the court system’s budget from Congress, but this is far from the amount needed to address the existing backlog.
The immigration court system is fully under Merrick Garland’s control–we need clear commitments from him to rapidly ramp up hiring of immigrant advocates to the bench and to use all available tools to reduce the backlog of immigration cases.
IMAGE: Department of Justice