The Department of Justice is setting quotas for immigration judges — part of a broader effort to speed up deportations and reduce a massive backlog of immigration cases.
The new quotas are laid out in a memo that was sent to immigration judges across the country on Friday. To get a "satisfactory" rating on their performance evaluations, judges will be required to clear at least 700 cases a year and to have fewer than 15 percent of their decisions overturned on appeal.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other immigration hard-liners say that backlog allows people who should be deported quickly to stay in the United States for years while they wait for a court date.
Immigration courts handle the civil cases of undocumented immigrants who are seeking to stay in the U.S. The courts are part of the Justice Department, and Sessions has the power to set rules and change precedent. He wants to clear a backlog that is approaching 700,000 cases.
But the National Association of Immigration Judges, the union that represents immigration judges, warns that quotas could undermine judicial independence and erode due process rights for immigrants. Immigration lawyers are also critical of the plan. "Decisions in immigration court have life-or-death consequences and cannot be managed like an assembly line," said Jeremy McKinney, secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"These unprecedented numeric quotas are so onerous that many judges will rush through cases to protect their own jobs," he said.
But the Justice Department disputes that. Between 2011 and 2016, immigration judges completed an average of 680 cases, according to DOJ spokesman Devin O'Malley.
"What this means is that judges will have to complete about three cases per day," O'Malley said. "We feel that is in line with what judges are already completing."
The immigration court system has been under fire, not only from critics who say it's inefficient but also from immigrant-rights advocates.
For one thing, advocates point out that only one-third of immigrants are represented by lawyers. Comedian John Oliver recently mocked the system on HBO's Last Week Tonight for forcing young children to represent themselves in court.
The new performance standards, which were first reported by the Wall Street Journal, are part of a wider push to speed up immigration courts and deportations. For instance, Sessions is widely expected to eliminate or cut back on the practice known as administrative closure, which allows judges to put cases on hold while immigrants seek visas or other kinds of relief from deportation. Sessions also is taking steps to limit who gets asylum in the U.S. Immigration lawyers are warning that those changes could mean immigration judges will be forced to turn away more people fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries.