The solution is clear: Congress needs to take immigration courts out of the Justice Department and make them independent, similar to other administrative courts that handle bankruptcy, income-tax and veterans’ cases. Immigration judges would then be freed from political influence and be able to run their dockets as they see fit, which could help reduce the backlog and improve the courts’ standing in the public eye. Reform advocates, including the Federal Bar Association, have pushed the idea of a stand-alone immigration court for years without success. The Trump administration made the case for independence that much clearer.
In the meantime, there are shorter-term fixes that could help restore a semblance of impartiality and professionalism to the immigration courts.
First, the system must be properly staffed and funded to deal with its backlog. One way to do that is by hiring more judges, and staff members to support them. Today there are about 550 immigration judges carrying an average of almost 3,000 cases each, which makes it nearly impossible to provide anything like fair and consistent justice. Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland asked Congress for a 21 percent increase in the court system’s budget. That’s a start, but it doesn’t come close to solving the problem. Even if 600 judges were able to get through 700 cases a year each — as Mr. Sessions ordered them to — it would take years to clear up the existing backlog, and that’s before taking on a single new case.
This is why another important fix is to stop a large number of those cases from being heard in the first place. The Justice Department has the power to immediately remove as many as 700,000 cases from the courts’ calendar, most of them for low-level immigration violations — people who have entered the country illegally, most from Mexico or Central America, or those who have overstayed a visa. Many of these cases are years old, or involve people who are likely to get a green card. Forcing judges to hear cases like these clutters the docket and makes it hard to focus on the small number of more serious cases, like those involving terrorism or national-security threats, or defendants facing aggravated felony charges. At the moment, barely 1 percent of all cases in the system fall into one of these categories.
A thornier problem is how to stamp out the hard-line anti-immigrant culture that spread throughout the Justice Department under Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions and the former president’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller. For instance, a 2019 department newsletter sent to immigration judges included an anti-Semitic reference and a link to VDare, an anti-immigrant group that regularly publishes white nationalists.
One of Mr. Biden’s first steps in office was to reassign the head of the immigration court system, James McHenry, who played a central role in many of Mr. Trump’s initiatives. But it’s generally hard to fire career civil servants, like the many judges and other officials tapped to promote Mr. Trump’s agenda. The Biden administration can reduce their influence by reassigning them, but this is not a long-term fix. While these judges are subject to political pressures, there can be no true judicial process.
If there’s any silver lining here, it is to be found in Mr. Trump’s overreach. The egregiousness of his administration’s approach to immigration may have accelerated efforts to solve the deeper structural rot at the core of the nation’s immigration courts.