There’s a backlog of 1.3 million asylum cases, and migrants keep coming. “We are holding death penalty cases in a traffic court setting,” said one judge.
With a historic increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the U.S. border, immigration judges on the front lines said the system is reaching a breaking point.
“In essence, we are holding death penalty cases in a traffic court setting,” Judge Dana Leigh Marks said, adding that many judges battle burnout daily.
There are about 500 immigration judges nationwide. They preside over asylum cases, meaning they decide who gets to stay in the U.S. and who must be deported. When President Joe Biden took office, there was already a backlog of 1.3 million cases, and the monthly crossing totals keep rising.
Among the judges’ concerns, as described to NBC News: There aren’t enough of them, they need more support staff, and they’ve felt political pressure from their bosses at the Justice Department. During the Trump administration, that meant pressure to enter orders of removal, even as many asylum-seekers assert that they risk death if they return to their home countries.
Judges in federal trial courts are effectively appointed for life, which can insulate them from pressure. Immigration judges, however, are Justice Department employees who are appointed by and answer to the attorney general, a political appointee.
The immigration judges are represented by a union, but the union is in danger of ceasing to exist because of an action initiated under former President Donald Trump.
“We are in the legal fight for our life to ensure that our decisional independence is valued and maintained,” Judge Amiena Khan said, and “that we as judges are able to do our jobs.”