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Immigration Judges Association Argues For Courts Independent Of Attorney General


American immigration courts have a backlog of more than a million cases. That number has almost doubled since President Trump took office. One reason - immigration judges are burning out by the hundreds. Today the union representing those judges testified before a House committee about the problem. Ashley Tabbador is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, and she's here in our studios after delivering that testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.



SHAPIRO: One of the big requests you're making is that immigration courts be independent, not under the control of the attorney general. Explain how, right now, immigration courts are different from civil and criminal courts in that respect.

TABBADOR: Most people, when you talk about the word immigration court or immigration judges, have a reasonable expectation that the judges are making independent and impartial decisions. What people don't realize is our immigration court system is actually within a law enforcement agency, and the immigration judges are hired by our chief federal prosecutor, the U.S. attorney general. We can be fired - and that the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security are also the ones who are overseeing our courts.

SHAPIRO: Why is this causing judges to leave in such large numbers?

TABBADOR: They're leaving because they are, frankly, being insulted on a daily basis, and they're being micromanaged on a daily basis. One of the other policies that they implemented under the guise of addressing the backlog is subjecting judges to quotas and deadlines. And this is a concept that, for judging, is completely in conflict with what you're supposed to do. As a judge, you're supposed to be an independent, impartial decision-maker. But once you're subjected to personal quotas and deadlines that jeopardizes your job, you're now introducing a conflict of interest that judges should not have.

SHAPIRO: How would independence fix or help address this problem?

TABBADOR: I think what a lot of people don't appreciate is that the backlog is initially created by a large number of cases being filed with the courts, so that's completely out of our control. But once the court receives those cases, the way that we handle the case can contribute to the backlog or, in fact, can help it be moderated. Every policy decision that has been made in the last three years in particular has contributed to it.

SHAPIRO: Help explain that for us...


SHAPIRO: ...Because what we hear President Trump and the attorney general saying is, we want to move these cases faster through the system. How does that contribute to the backlog?

TABBADOR: They cherry-pick the type of cases that they want to process. There's a lot of citations to the statistics about - oh, look at how many cases have been completed. Well, those cases are, frankly, cases that have been pushed faster through the system, resulting in what's called in absentia orders; orders in which people have failed to appear. When people fail to appear, there a lot of possible explanations for their failure to appear. One could be the fact that things have been scheduled so fast that the notice hasn't been adequately accomplished and that this is going to result in them having to come back later on and for us having to hear the case all over.

SHAPIRO: Do you think independence for these courts could realistically happen?

TABBADOR: Well, we sure hope so. I believe we have - it's one of those issues that should not be a right or a left issue because under both the previous administration and this administration, we've seen the court repeatedly used as an extension of law enforcement priorities. So when it's on the left, people on the right are screaming that the law is not being followed and everything is in violation. When it's on the right, they people on the left are arguing the same thing. You don't want a court system that is dependent on who's in power to decide whether the cases are going to be handled one way or another. When you go to court, you want to know that the court is independent and making decisions based on the fact and the law, not because you're in someone's favor or disfavor this day.

SHAPIRO: Ashley Tabbador, thank you for coming in to talk with us.

TABBADOR: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: She's president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "NORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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