The US immigration courts, charged with determining the fate of undocumented immigrants and refugees, look a lot like a regular court system at first glance, with robe-clad judges hearing cases in courtrooms and handing down rulings from a dais.
But these courts aren’t part of the judiciary branch; they sit under the umbrella of the US Department of Justice. The judges who oversee proceedings are essentially government lawyers. Defendants often go without legal representation. And although the immigration courts system has an appeals body, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and certain of its decisions can be challenged in the federal appellate courts, they can also be reversed or overruled by a single presidential appointee.
Currently, that’s Jeff Sessions, US president Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general. As a US senator for Alabama, Sessions earned a reputation as one of the staunchest immigration opponents in the US Congress. Now he’s in charge of the Justice Department and its Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), giving him the authority to direct judges on how to interpret the law and which cases to hear. He also has the ability to fire them.
That widespread power will be under the constant strain of a bulging case backlog in the immigration court system, which has been colorfully described as “a diorama of disfunction,” “chaos” and the “least competent federal agency.”
It’s not a promising scenario for an organization with a mission to “fairly, expeditiously, and uniformly” administer the nation’s laws on immigration, a core issue of Trump’s administration.