So wrote Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in his February 13, 2020, letter to Attorney General William Barr, in which he and eight members of the Senate Judiciary Committee called upon Barr to take action against, what he termed, an increasingly troubling politicization of the immigration court adjudication process.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for those seeking human rights protection in the form of asylum and other forms of relief from persecution and torture. Individual liberty and personal safety interests are often at stake in immigration court proceedings where immigration judges have the authority to grant protection from persecution. Id.; see also, 8 U.S.C. 1158. Whitehouse gave voice to what is becoming an alarming trend—the increasing political influence over individual immigration cases. This action, he explained, is undermining the public’s confidence in the immigration courts and creating an impression that “cases are being decided based on political considerations rather than the relevant facts and law. The appearance of bias alone is corrosive to the public trust.” Whitehouse Letter, supra, at 5; see also, 8 U.S.C. Section 1229a(b)(4)(A) and (B); 8 C.F.R. 1003.10(b).
Whitehouse recounted a sentiment articulated previously by a host of legal community leaders for more than a decade, not the least of which was ABA President Judy Perry Martinez, who in a recent statement before the U.S. Congress explained that housing a court within a law enforcement agency has exacerbated an inherent conflict of interest undermining “the basic structural and procedural safeguards that we take for granted in other areas of our justice system." See, Am. Bar. Assoc., 2019 Update Report: Reforming the Immigration System, Proposals to Promote Independence, Fairness, Efficiency, and Professionalism in the Adjudication of Removal Cases (Mar. 2019). As she explained, “this structural flaw leaves Immigration Judges particularly vulnerable to political pressure and interference in case management.” Martinez Testimony, supra, at 1.
It is important to note that these concerns are being expressed on the heels of what some see as growing impunity within the executive branch, focused almost single-mindedly on the speed of removal hearings at the risk of diminished due process. See Statement of Jeremy McKinney, Secretary, American Immigration Lawyer’s Association, NPR, Justice Department Rolls Out Quotas for Immigration Judges (April 3, 2018). The Justice Department is being charged with implementing a host of policies that diminish the primary responsibility of ensuring a fair hearing. For the past three years, the attorney general has used a process known as “certification,” a power historically used sparingly, to overrule decisions made by the Board of Immigration Appeals and set binding precedent. Id. Some have argued that the frequency with which this procedure has recently been employed borders on abuse as it seeks to severely limit the number of immigrants who can remain in the United States. Whitehouse Letter, supra, at 5. Equally troubling is the charge that the attorney general is using certification as a way to overrule immigration judges whose decisions don’t align with the administration’s immigration agenda. Id.
One area of particular concern is the recent encroachment by the agency into judicial independence. The National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), which is the union representing sitting immigration judges, argues, alongside many others in the legal community, that these incursions into judicial independence are part of a broader effort to fundamentally alter how immigration removal cases are adjudicated, and that such actions are having deleterious effects. See Statement of Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, President of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Border Security and Immigration Subcommittee Hearing on “Strengthening and Reforming America’s Immigration Court System” 2 (Apr. 18, 2018).