Jeff Sessions Wants to Impose Quotas on Immigration Judges. Here’s Why That’s a Bad Idea.

They could make the backlog of cases even worse.

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The Justice Department has set new quotas on the country’s immigration judges, hoping to speed deportations and cut through a massive backlog of 685,000 cases that has grown quickly under the Trump administration.

On Friday, the department sent a memo to the country’s roughly 350 immigration judges saying they would be required to clear at least 700 cases annually in order to earn a satisfactory grade on their performance evaluations. According to department officials, the judges currently handle an average of 678 cases. The new standards go into effect in October and will also limit the recommended amount of time judges can spend on each case.

Speaking to reporters on a press call Wednesday, an immigration judge and representatives of a major lawyers’ association argued the quotas could actually make the backlog worse. Here’s a quick rundown of their top concerns—plus some ideas on how to actually reduce the mounting pile of unheard cases:

  • The quotas will require judges to complete about three cases a day. That’s not a feasible goal, according to Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges union. “They are allocating, on average for a case, no more than two and a half hours,” she says, noting that asylum cases often have hundreds of pages of supporting documents and require hours of testimony and deliberation. And it doesn’t make sense, she adds, to apply the same quota to all judges, because different judges handle different types of cases, including complex ones that take more time. “We deal with people who are unaccompanied children, with people who have mental competency issues, with people who have serious criminal convictions, and with people who have fear of returning to their home countries in case of threat of death.”
  • Immigrants could struggle to secure the evidence they need. Karen Lucas, director of the Immigration Justice Campaign, says the tight deadlines may not allow time for people to obtain documents from overseas that will help them win their cases, such as medical records to prove they fled from persecution. “Or sometimes you have to wait for an independent mental health evaluation to substantiate your claim, but it’s extremely hard to get timely clearance for doctors to get into detention centers,” she notes. It can also take time to get court interpreters for immigrants who don’t speak English.
  • Judges’ integrity is at stake. “The very concept” of the quota system “is in conflict with independent decision-making authority of judges,” says Tabaddor, “because it pits the judges’ personal livelihood to mere completion of cases faster through the system, rather than making decisions that are based on the fact and the law of the case as they took the oath to do.” And it could make people doubt their final rulings: An immigrant may question whether a judge denied a claim because of the law or because she was trying to meet a deadline. “It is essentially folding an appealable issue into the case,” and more appeals mean a bigger backlog, she says. 

Last year, arrests of noncriminal immigrants by federal agents more than doubled, which has created a heavier load for judges, says Jeremy McKinney, national secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Rather than forcing judges to hear more cases, some argue it makes sense to simply give them better tools to do their jobs. One solution would be to invest in an electronic filing system, rather than forcing them to work with paper documentation, says McKinney: “Judges could get and resolve motions faster and review what is often hundreds of pages of evidence on a screen during the hearing.”

Another idea would be to hire more court clerks—it’s not uncommon for three judges to share one, he says. “Judges are aware of backlogs; we’ve been living with them for many, many years,” says Judge Tabaddor. But “when law enforcement gets 400 percent increases in their budget and the court gets only 70 percent increases,” she adds, “the only result you can expect is a bottleneck.”

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