A U.S. immigration judge speaks out about her fears that the rule of law is under assault

An arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, America’s system of immigration courts handles the civil cases of undocumented immigrants seeking to remain in the United States. Immigration judges must often weigh whether sending people back to their countries of origin could place their lives in danger.

But since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, immigration rights activists have warned that his administration has taken unprecedented steps to transform the immigration court system into what critics call a “deportation machine” by emphasizing the quick removal of people from the country over due process and the rule of law. There are also worries that immigration hardliners in the administration are trying to restrict the independence of immigration judges by stripping them of some of their authority and establishing case completion quotas.

One person who shares those concerns is inside the immigration court system. Ashley Tabaddor is a U.S. immigration judge in Los Angeles and the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

KCRW sat down with Judge Tabaddor to discuss her concerns.

Transcript edited for clarity.

KCRW: What has it been like for you since the beginning of the Trump Administration? What in your world has changed?

Judge Tabaddor: It’s been unprecedented, in terms of magnitude and volume, the steps that have been taken to align the U.S. Immigration Court with what appears to be a law enforcement policy. In every way, you just feel that things are being done to try to align the court with the Department of Homeland Security and the Administration’s law enforcement policies.

I have no opinion, or I speak no opinion, regarding the law enforcement policies. That’s the Department’s prerogative. I don’t speak on the actual policies, but to the extent that the court is being used as an extension of those law enforcement policies is what becomes problematic.

I remember within a few months of the Administration coming in, the Department of Justice was putting on press releases congratulating itself for having now a higher percentage of orders of deportation being issued by the court. And to us that was just completely unbelievable. I mean it’s one thing to say that we are proud, that we’ve been able to reach a certain level of efficiency while still protecting due process, and we’re able to complete a certain number of cases, that’s one thing. But to come out and say that, ‘oh we’re proud to report that we’ve seen deportations increase by 40 percent,’ that is very problematic. The U.S. Immigration Court has been swept in with the rest of law enforcement messaging.

KCRW: If you sum it up is it a message of ‘We want to see you get tough?’

Judge Tabaddor: The messaging is very clear- we need more cases done faster. It was done in a messaging of law enforcement rather than the oath of office, which is follow the law and remember due process while maintaining the efficiency of the U.S. Immigration Court.

Ashley Tabaddor has been an immigration judge since 2005. Before that she was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California and a professor law at USC. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

KCRW: How does what’s happening now intersect with your own understanding of being an immigration court judge?

Judge Tabaddor: As a public servant, as a judge, I promised that I was going to follow the Constitution. I promised that I was going to follow the law. And this is very important for me at this time to stand up and make sure that I stay true to that promise, and that I protect the independence of the judges as much as I possibly can. We’ve always had problems, but we have never been on the level of intense challenges that we’re facing now.

KCRW: And what do you say to people who argue immigration judges should be tougher and that it shouldn’t be easy to stay in this country if you’re here illegally?

Judge Tabbaddor: I would say that I am here to protect America. And I protect America by making sure that the rule of law applies and that every one of our judges are given the support that they need in order to be able to apply the law based on the facts of the case. It’s not about being lenient or being hard. It’s about looking to see whether, under the law, someone is here without authorization and should be deported, or whether they have demonstrated that they’re eligible to stay and that they deserve to stay under the law  based on the facts of the case.

The U.S. Immigration Court in Los Angeles in this office tower near Pershing Square in downtown L.A. Here 28 judges and their support staff face a backlog of 68,000 pending cases, most involving citizens of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many fear social unrest and gang violence in their own country are petitioning for asylum in the U.S. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

KCRW: The Department of Justice estimates there’s a backlog of about 700,000 cases in the U.S. Immigration Court system. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions want to solve that backlog by imposing case completion quotas on judges. What’s wrong with that idea?

Judge Tabaddor: It’s truly unprecedented. We’re not aware of any other judge across the country whose job is on the line for not completing a certain number of cases in a certain period of time. What it does is make the judge an interested party in the case because now the judge has to be thinking, ‘am I going to lose my job if I don’t do this case quickly?’

And perhaps the best way I can explain this is law enforcement budget has been doubling and tripling over time, and the U.S. Immigration Court’s budget hasn’t kept up with it. It’s a little bit like taking a one-lane highway with one exit ramp and then making it three-lane highway and still keeping the one exit ramp and holding the exit ramp responsible for the traffic. So it’s problematic on so many levels that it’s frankly indefensible on any level.

KCRW: If current trends continue, what do you do? Do you see a time when you say to yourself I just can’t put on that robe and go into that courtroom anymore I have to do something else with my life?

Judge Tabaddor: We’re not there yet. I’m not going to give up hope.I’m not going to give up fighting for the court,  and the judges and our American judicial system. I just refuse to think that way right now because I think if you think that way then that’s a defeatist mentality, and I don’t intend to be defeated.