Ex-judges: Immigration courts should be independent

Two retired immigration judges urged Congress to create an independent immigration court system, removing the courts from under the U.S. Justice Department, where they currently reside.

The former judges made their call at a panel discussion March 17 — “Adjudicatory Independence: Are Immigration Judges a Warning or a Model?” — organized by the American Bar Association Judicial Division. They and other panelists argued that immigration judges are not truly independent as long as they answer to the U.S. attorney general, who can overturn their decisions, fire them and create new immigration policies that they must follow.

Steven Morley, a retired immigration judge in Philadelphia, talked about a case he handled in 2018, called the Matter of Castro-Tum, which he considered a red flag for judicial independence.

The case involved an unaccompanied minor who illegally entered the United States, was detained by authorities, then released to relatives in the United States pending a hearing to force him to leave the county. Hearing notices were sent to the relatives’ address, but the boy did not appear. Finally, after four postponements, Morley administratively closed — or indefinitely suspended — the case, ruling that the Department of Homeland Security could not show it had a reliable address to notify the boy of his hearing.

At that point, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred the case to himself and overturned the judge’s decision. Sessions ruled that immigration judges do not have the authority to administratively close cases as Morley did. The new policy made it harder for immigration judges across the country to indefinitely suspend cases. This caused an uproar among immigration judges and advocates.

Three years later, in 2021, Merrick Garland — a new attorney general in a new administration — overturned Sessions’ action.

Such actions undermine the independence of immigration judges, Morley said. “The flaws in the system allow this to happen, and we should always be concerned for the integrity of the court system.”

Morley said attorneys general under President Donald Trump referred immigration cases to themselves to overturn judges’ decisions 17 times in four years, a large number compared to previous administrations. “This is no way to run immigration policy, to have ping-ponging back and forth of policy, from one attorney general to another attorney general.”

Joan Churchill, a retired immigration judge in Northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., also emphasized the importance of maintaining due process in immigration courts, particularly hearing notices to defendants. “Adequate notice of the hearing is on everybody’s list as a requirement of due process,” she said.

Churchill noted that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision a few years ago, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, found that notices in immigration court often were not constitutionally adequate. “Justice Gorsuch said any notices that did not include the time and place of the hearing — which many of them did not; they just said time and place to be determined — those were not adequate notice of the hearing and therefore the cases were defective.”

In 2010, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a policy supporting the creation of an independent Article I system of immigration courts. More than 150 organizations support this position, including the National Association of Immigration Judges and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Churchill said.

The program was co-sponsored by the ABA Commission on Immigration, ABA International Law Section, National Association of Women Judges, ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice and ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section.

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