Good News: The Department of Justice Hires 24 More Immigration Judges

By David North, November 11, 2010

The U.S. Department of Justice has announced that it has hired 24 additional Immigration Judges. That's an increase in that judicial work force of about 10 percent.

That's good news; it means that there will be many more deportations, some more judgments that aliens can stay in the country, and, one hopes, fewer aliens, on average, in detention centers, thus saving the taxpayers about $100 a day per detainee.

I have been visiting the immigration courts here in Arlington, Va., and just yesterday watched as an immigration judge with a typical heavy caseload was setting the dates for hearings (usually an hour in length). The dates he set were on May 23 and 24, 2011, meaning a seven-month stay in detention – assuming no bail bonds – for the aliens involved.

Those aliens were already in detention centers (and appeared at the proceedings through closed circuit TV), so this means an additional seven months for each. Seven months in such a center costs the taxpayers about $21,000 per alien.

Or maybe it is 23 new judges. A November 9 news article said that DOJ had sworn in 23 new ones, but a DOJ press release of one day earlier contained resumes for 24 new judges.

In any case, DOJ says that there are now 259 judges altogether; about a year ago the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the parent DOJ agency to the immigration judges, announced a recruitment of ten new judges, so this year's intake is considerably larger.

Meanwhile, a Syracuse University entity, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which has secured a substantial flow of data from the immigration courts, reports that about 70 percent of ICE recommendations of deportation are approved by the courts, down from about 75 percent in an earlier period. See the full text of the TRAC report, under the loaded headline "ICE Seeks to Deport the Wrong People."

TRAC thinks that only aliens with serious criminal records should be deported.

Back to the judges. The one-paragraph resumes of the new judges indicate that DOJ's new hires are largely federal civil servants, and largely people with years of experience in immigration law. In contrast, a substantial number of the Bush administration's hires were newcomers to immigration.

CIS's analysis of the resumes shows that 21 of the 24 have had some to a great deal of experience with federal agencies, with six of these also having served in state or local government. Of the 24, at least 19 have experience with immigration law.

Working with immigration law, however, does not mean that most of the new judges have been recruited from the private immigration bar. The overwhelming majority of those with immigration law experience have secured it from working with DHS (usually ICE) and, in some cases from both DHS and the old INS. Only two of the new judges with immigration experience have never worked for the feds; one of these is a former president of a chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

There are no three-year degrees from Harvard Law, but one of the judges does have an LLM from that institution. Only U.C. Berkeley Law School and Cardoza Law School have two graduates each in the new group of judges, no other law school has more than one graduate.

There are more new judges with significant military backgrounds, four, than those with Hispanic names, perhaps three.

The age range of the new cohort is 35 to 59, with half of the new judges being in their forties, thus likely to stay for a while. (The resumes did not have actual ages of the individuals, so I estimated ages by assuming that all their bachelor's degrees were earned at age 22.)

My reading of the resumes suggests that none of the new judges has ever held elective office (or, if so, DOJ is not telling us). Further, I have a good nose for political appointments (having held several myself at various levels of government) and I sense none among the 24.

These are grueling jobs in an assembly-line justice system, with each of the judges making numerous life-changing decisions, often based on slim evidence, several times a day. But while they do not have the formal life tenure of federal district and circuit court judges, they have stable civil service positions. The salary range is $124,263 to $163,317 a year, depending on seniority.

The Justice Department press releases do not touch on a federal fiscal anomaly inherent in these hires. My rough estimate is that for every dollar that DOJ spends on new judges, it will save DHS at least $10 to $20 in detention costs. Maybe if both the judges and the detention centers were in the same department, as they were in the days of INS, DOJ would be even more assertive about hiring more judges.