Immigration judges push to be independent from Department of Justice

Recommendation No. 1: Double the number of judges

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congress might be on recess, but the immigration issue isn’t.

Two judges called on Congress earlier this week to tap into its constitutional power to make the swamped immigration court system an independent judicial agency.

“The immigration courts are the forgotten stepchild of the U.S. Department of Justice,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, which is a judges’ union.

In the spotlight because of the surge of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration courts are backlogged, underfunded, understaffed and subject to political whims, Marks said during a press conference at the National Press Club.

Marks and Judge Denise Noonan Slavin, NAIJ executive vice president, stepped out from behind the bench in a rare press conference to speak as union leaders about challenges in immigration courts and the need for independence. 

“Our role is to serve as a neutral court, but paradoxically, we are housed in a law-enforcement agency,” Marks said. “Because we have been left to the mercy of the political winds which constantly buffet immigration issues, we have been resource-starved for decades.”

The immigration court system receives 1.7 percent of $18 billion allocated for immigration law enforcement, said Marks, a San Francisco-based judge with 27 years on the bench. 

Marks said overburdened immigration judges suffer from low morale and face staggering dockets.

“As you look around our courtrooms, you see that the immigration judges are doing so many things that we look like the guy behind the curtain in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” she said.

They typically operate with no court reporter, bailiff or clerk in the courtroom and archive their own evidence, Marks said.

There are 375,000 cases pending in the immigration court system, she said. That’s about 1,500 on average per judge, but she has more than 2,400 pending cases. A first hearing takes 15 months, and a second hearing takes three and a half to four years to get on her docket.

The immigration court system has 243 judges, including 227 field judges handling cases, Marks said. NAIJ believes the number of immigration judges should double.

So far, cost has been the objection to making the immigration court system independent, but it would be a more efficient system, the judges said.

Creating an independent immigration court system under Article 1 of the Constitution would take an act of Congress, Marks said.

 “We’re waiting for our champion to step forward,” she said.

Washington correspondent Trish Choate can be reached at 202-408-2709 or Follow her on Twitter at Trish_in_DC. 

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