GEN | The Trump 45: Immigration Judge Chasing a Quota

An Immigration Judge Chasing a Quota.

Judges increasingly have to choose between keeping their jobs and ensuring due process↑

As part of a series on 45 lives changed during the Trump administration, I profiled immigration judge Ashley Tabbador, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. Read the full series here.

On the fourteenth floor of a high-rise in downtown Los Angeles, Judge Ashley Tabaddor, of the Los Angeles Immigration Court, averages three to four minutes per hearing — just enough time to swear in the respondent, hear updates from the lawyer on documents and case status, and, if all is in order, schedule a merit hearing to determine the respondent’s eventual fate.

As president of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), Tabaddor specializes in immigration cases involving juveniles, a docket that increased from less than 9,000 cases in each of the previous four years to over 51,500 cases in 2018 alone, a fraction of the 869,000 cases that are currently pending.

In an effort to cut down the backlog, the Department of Justice implemented a controversial new system last October that tied judges’ performance evaluations to their ability to meet certain quotas (for example, the completion of 700 cases per year). It’s an approach that Tabaddor and most immigration experts say incentivizes judges to sacrifice due process for speed.

Immigration courts are overseen by the U.S. Attorney General, an arrangement that threatens their judicial independence. As each administration shifts the court’s priorities to reflect its own political agenda, the courts “become a political messaging tool,” Tabbador said in an interview, speaking in her capacity as NAIJ president. As part of the Trump administration’s focus on what it has deemed a “border crisis,” for example, a third of the judges were temporarily reassigned to border courts “essentially as a show of force,” Tabaddor continued. Their own hearings, already scheduled years in advance, had to be rescheduled yet again.

These quotas also fail to distinguish between different types of cases. It “doesn’t matter if it’s a fifteen-minute hearing or a twenty-five-hour hearing,” Tabaddor said. She noted, however, that any resulting decrease in the backlog would likely be temporary, because rushed decisions leave room for error and a perception of bias, leading to appeals.

For some judges, the introduction of the quota system was their last straw. Tabaddor said that more judges have retired or resigned under the Trump administration, which has “deeply impacted both the morale and the role of being a judge.” Judges, she explained, are forced to “risk their jobs to ensure due process” a situation she called “indefensible.”

Six months into the fiscal year, Tabaddor estimates that she’s completed between 200 and 300 cases. At this rate, she won’t meet her quota. She’s considered leaving her job, as many of her colleagues already have. But she feels bound by duty — to NAIJ, which elected her, and to the country — so she’s staying. “It’s an important time to be mindful of civic duty,” she said, “and to hold our government accountable to the Constitution and the rule of law.”

PoliticsEileen Guo