Immigration judges accuse DOJ of undermining independence

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers the keynote address during the General Assembly of the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers the keynote address during the General Assembly of the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Immigration judges on Wednesday accused the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions of undermining a Philadelphia judge’s independence by having cases removed from his court, apparently because the federal officials deemed him too slow to make decisions on deportation orders.

A grievance filed by their union asks for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to acknowledge in writing that it will not interfere with the “decisional authority” of judges in the assignment or reassignment of cases.

“The decisional independence of immigration judges is under siege,” said Los Angeles Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor in her role as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “If allowed to stand, the agency can simply forum-shop its cases for the outcome it wishes to achieve.”

The grievance stems from a case of a Guatemalan immigrant who had come to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor and had missed several court hearings.

Judge Steven A. Morley had suspended the case to examine whether proper notice had been sent to the man. The agency then reassigned the case to a supervisory judge who traveled from Virginia to hear the matter and issued a deportation order.

The union says dozens of additional cases were also removed from Morley, and they would like them to be returned to his docket.

Tabaddor said the union sees the reassignment of Morley’s cases as part of a larger problem of influencing how the immigration courts function, “turning immigration judges into an arm of law enforcement.”

No one was immediately available to comment at the Justice Department.

Tabaddor said she was unaware of other immigration judges who have had cases reassigned for these reasons, but said all the judges are currently facing issues with executive orders installing quotas and deadlines that are scheduled to go into effect in October.

The judges’ union said the Justice Department’s action not only undermined Morley’s authority but “also threatens the ability of all immigration judges nationwide to fairly apply the immigration laws of the United States consistent with due process rights of parties.”

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