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Immigration courts in 2020: Judges leave, cases surge

A new report finds immigration judges are leaving the bench in record numbers. The report, by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) a well-respected nonpartisan research center connected with Syracuse University, used information from the Executive office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the group which administers the courts, to come up with its data. The number of judges stepping down topped previous records in 2017, 2018 and 2019. These judges left both through retirement and resignation. The numbers, 20, 27 and 35 respectively, were the highest reported in over two decades.

Why are immigration judges choosing to leave? To understand the answer to this question, it helps to have a better understanding of how the immigration court system works in the United States. The immigration court system is composed of 63 courts spread throughout the country. The courts are unique because they are a part of the Justice Department, an arm of the executive branch. The immigration courts are not part of the judiciary branch. The U.S. Attorney General, someone directly connected to the president, hires and fires the judges who serve on the immigration court bench.

According to the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Judge Ashley Tabaddor, the exodus of immigration judges is connected to pressures from the executive branch. Judge Tabaddor states the current administration’s use of increased enforcement efforts in immigration cases as well as “unprecedented micromanagement” have led to a culture within the court system that is pushing out experienced judges. This culture, coupled with a focus on the number of cases instead of the quality of the hearings, has contributed to the increase in judges choosing to retire or resign.

This means there is a decrease in the numbers of experienced judges to decide complex cases and to provide valuable mentor relationships for those accepting positions on the immigration court bench.

Another problem: the backlog of immigration cases. TRAC reports there are currently over 1.2 million backlogged immigration cases. This surge is due in part to increases in enforcement efforts and a lack of resources to the immigration courts to move forward the cases that result from these efforts.

Immigrants who find themselves facing a Notice to Appear (NTA) for a deportation case are wise to seek legal counsel. The immigration courts are difficult to navigate in the best of times, and these are far from the best of times. An attorney experienced in this complex and niche area of the law can help to better ensure your rights are protected.

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