Attorney General Jeff Sessions angered immigration judges today by giving them unwanted advice on how to handle their cases, according to Buzzfeed News. In a speech given to 44 new judges in Virginia, Sessions explicitly called for the new recruits to fight back against immigration lawyers.
“Good lawyers, using all of their talents and skill, work every day—like water seeping through an earthen dam—to get around the plain words of the [Immigration and Nationality Act] to advance their clients’ interests. Theirs is not the duty to uphold the integrity of the act. That is our most serious duty,” he said.
“When we depart from the law and create nebulous legal standards out of a sense of sympathy for the personal circumstances of a respondent in our immigration courts, we do violence to the rule of law and constitutional fabric that bind this great nation. Your job is to apply the law—even in tough cases,” Sessions added.
Current and former immigration judges disagreed.
“The reality is that it is a political statement which does not articulate a legal concept that judges are required to be aware of and follow,” Dana Marks, a spokesperson for the National Association of Immigration Judges, the union that represents the country’s 350 immigration judges, told Buzzfeed. “It did appear to be a one-sided argument made by a prosecutor.”
Other judges noted that asylum laws were actually designed to be flexible enough for judges to make calls driven by their morality. “We possess brains and hearts, not just one or the other,” Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge, told Buzzfeed. “Sessions is characterizing decisions he personally disagrees with as being based on sympathy alone, when in fact, those decisions were driven by sympathy but based on solid legal reasoning.”
Why would Sessions would feel he has the right to comment on these judges decisions at all? Buzzfeed explains:
Unlike other US courts, immigration judges are employees of the Justice Department whose evaluations are based on guidelines Sessions lays out. In that role, Sessions already has instituted case quotas, restricted the types of cases for which asylum can be granted, and limited when judges can indefinitely suspend certain cases. Advocates believe the Trump administration has made these decisions in order to speed up deportations. His comments on sympathy to immigrants appeared intended to bolster a decision he made recently to limit when asylum can be granted out of fear of domestic or gang violence.
Sessions also told the judges that they should focus on maximum production and urged them to get “imaginative and inventive” with their high caseload. The courts currently have a backlog of hundreds of thousands of deportation cases.
The National Association of Immigration Judges has spent years advocating for a separation from the Department of Justice to prevent being influenced or coerced by individuals like Sessions.
“We cannot possibly be put in this bind of being accountable to someone who is so clearly committed to the prosecutorial role,” Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge in Los Angeles and the president of the judge’s union, told Buzzfeed. She noted that Sessions didn’t seem at all concerned about due process or fairness, two other principles that judges are tasked with upholding.