Under the U.S. Constitution, federal courts are a separate branch of government. Though they are funded through the Congress, and the President nominates federal judges and the Senate approves or rejects them, federal judges have a lifetime appointment meant to keep them independent. Immigration judges, however, are employees of the Department of Justice, as are agents working for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The fact that an immigration judge in Philadelphia was removed from a case shows immigration judges’ independence only goes so far.
The judge, who had decided not to deport an immigrant who had not shown up for a hearing multiple times, was removed from the case. In July he was replaced, and the new judge ordered that the immigrant be immediately deported. Fifteen retired immigration judges signed a letter protesting the removal of the judge, citing it as evidence of increasing pressure on judges to deport more immigrants, according to BuzzFeed News.
Judge Steven Morley was originally assigned the case of Reynaldo Castro-Tum. Morley suspended the case by “administrative closure” because the notice sent to Castro-Tum may have been sent to the wrong address. “Administrative closure” is commonly used by immigration judges. It’s a way to remove a case from a judge’s docket which doesn’t result in a final order.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in his role supervising immigration judges, referred the case to himself and wrote an opinion restricting the use of these “administrative closures.” If fully implemented, this could dramatically change how deportation cases are handled. If these cases are suddenly made active, they could potentially add hundreds of thousands of cases to an already overwhelmed immigration court system.
Sessions sent the case back to Morley’s court, writing instructions that if Castro-Tum failed to appear for his next hearing, he should be ordered deported. He didn’t show up, but an attorney advocating on his behalf argued that he didn’t have enough notice and that he wanted to file a brief in the case. Morley scheduled a hearing in July to go over those issues, but before that could happen, Morley was replaced with a supervising judge. The new judge, an assistant chief immigration judge, ordered Castro-Tum deported.
Ashley Tabaddor, heads the union representing immigration judges, the National Association of Immigration Judges. She said the union was “deeply concerned” about the case and they were considering legal action in response. Tensions have increased between the union and Sessions for many reasons, including the fact that he has warned immigration judges they’ll be evaluated on how many cases they close and how quickly they hear cases.
Unlike other federal judges, whose decisions are reviewed by higher level appellate courts, immigration judges report to Sessions. Immigration judges aren’t protected from potential pressures from the Department of Justice or from politics in general the same way that other federal judges are, though most are hardworking, honest people trying to do the best they can with what resources they have. If these trends continue there’s a risk hearings before an immigration judge could just be a formality before deportations are ordered.
If you or a loved one lives in Fayette County, Kentucky, or the surrounding area, and you have questions about immigration law or need representation in an immigration matter, Carman & Fullerton can help you, whether you speak English, Spanish or another language. Your future and that of your family is at stake, so contact us today.