Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday hailed a record-high class of 44 new immigration law judges and reiterated his determination to clear a backlog of cases that are gumming up the works.
Sessions (pictured above), who oversees immigration judges, spoke to the new hires before they began training.
“No great and prosperous nation can have both a generous welfare system and great prosperity and open borders,” he said. “Such a policy is both radical — it’s dangerous. It’s never been adopted here or any other major nation that I am aware of.”
James McHenry, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), told the 44 judges and two new supervising judges that they are part of 128 new judges hired since the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration. He added that the agency plans to bring on two more classes, for a total of 50 more judges.
The office also has reduced the hiring process from an average of 742 days to 195 days, McHenry said.
“We intend to keep hiring until we run out of space or money,” he said.
The hiring spree comes as the immigration court backlog has continued to spiral under Trump. The system had 746,049 pending cases as of July 31, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records ALSDJ Clearinghouse (TRAC). That was up 38 percent from the 542,411 cases pending when Trump took office.
Sessions blamed abuse of the U.S. asylum system for the bulging backlog. He pointed out that 5,000 foreigners crossing the border in 2009 claimed a “credible fear” of persecution in their homelands. That skyrocketed to 94,000 in 2016.
After passing an initial screening by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, 4,000 of the credible fear claimants in 2009 got immigration court hearing dates. That increased nineteenfold, to 73,000 by 2016.
Over the past five years, immigration judges have found just 20 percent of asylum claims to be legitimate.
“The reason for the decline is because the vast majority of the current asylum claims are not valid,” he said.
Andrew “Art” Arthur, a former immigration judge who now serves as a senior fellow in law and policy at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), told LifeZette the new hires should start to pay dividends.
“Those are significant resources that will help bring down the backlog,” he said.
A lack of resources has been the biggest reason why the caseload has continued to rise, Arthur said. “For years, EIOR was significantly underfunded,” he said.
In congressional testimony in November, McHenry said Trump has set a goal of adding 370 new judges, which would push the total to about 700.
“Asylum was never meant to provide escape from all the problems — even serious problems —that people face every day around the world,” Sessions said Monday. “Indeed, Americans face serious problems every day, too.”
“This is the zero-tolerance policy you’ve heard about. You don’t get to enter the country unlawfully, between the ports of entry, place our CBP officers at risk without having some consequences, for that.”
In addition to hiring more judges, the Department of Justice (DOJ) under Sessions has taken steps that he said “restore the way the law was initially enforced for decades.”
The attorney general vowed to stay ahead of immigration lawyers who use every available tool to evade the “plain words” of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) — “like water seeping through an earthen dam.”
The attorney general clarified that judges do not have the authority to close cases “administratively,” as has been routine practice for immigrants who have applied for visas or green cards. In another order, Sessions narrowed the requirements for holding a “merits” hearing in certain cases.
Sessions noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced this year that it would seek to refer 100 percent of illegal border crossers for prosecution. U.S. attorney’s officers have been prosecuting 90 percent of those referrals, Sessions said.
“This is the zero-tolerance policy you’ve heard about,” he said. “You don’t get to enter the country unlawfully, between the ports of entry, place our CBP officers at risk without having some consequences for that.”
Sessions told the new judges that they do not have 9-to-5 jobs.
“As you take on this critically important role, I hope that you will be imaginative and inventive in an orderly and lawful way to help manage these very high caseloads that you’ll be inheriting,” he said. “I do not apologize for encouraging you to do so and expecting you to do so.”