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Why Immigration Judges Opt To Leave Over Trump Policies


Americans who disagree about almost every other part of immigration policy often agree on this - we don't have enough immigration judges. It would be good to have more so that migrants and asylum-seekers can get rulings more quickly. No matter if you want people to stay or you want people to go, a quicker ruling just seems fair and more effective. So it is meaningful that in this time of surging immigration caseloads, some judges are quitting, citing frustration and exhaustion. Judge Charles Honeyman retired in January after 24 years. He says his own family history helped to shape his approach to his job.

CHARLES HONEYMAN: All four of my grandparents came from different portions of czarist Russia. So there are times when I look across the table and I see a foreign national and an attorney and I think to myself, but for a quirk of history or a decision or good fortune that I would be on the other side of the table. And I think that has always given me a sense of empathy and desire to be fair, while at the same time being fair to the prosecution as well.

INSKEEP: During almost a quarter century on the job, Judge Honeyman says he always tried to balance strict enforcement of the law with fairness. When President Trump took office, he says, things changed.

HONEYMAN: It looked like that there was a very subtle or not so subtle effort to view this period as a window of opportunity for those whose agenda is a dramatic decrease in immigration and to have under a greater control the immigration judges, imposition of quotas on judges in terms of performance metrics. All of the immigration judges were told that they were supposed to complete 700 cases per year. But this one-size-view-all mentality about how you manage is one that makes not a lot of sense without taking a look at the nature of individual dockets and what types of cases are likely to move more quickly or more slowly.

INSKEEP: Along with quotas, Honeyman worries about the independence of the judiciary. He says judges hearing immigration cases must be able to render decisions free of political pressure. He told our colleague Noel that independence is secured in large part through an immigration judges union, a union the administration wants to do away with.

HONEYMAN: They're trying to do this so that they don't have to hear from immigration judges, bargain with them. The organization is a public sector union, and it's been authorized to represent immigration judges since 1979. And 20...

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Can the administration just decertify the union that you belonged to your entire career as an immigration judge?

HONEYMAN: They can't do it automatically; they have to file a petition. And even under the Clinton administration, they tried to do that for perhaps some different political reasons 20 years ago, and that litigation failed. And I think they're trying to do it now because they think that the political climate might favor them in the courts.

KING: What kind of physical toll did this take on you? The stress of being told that you have to decide cases more quickly than you would like, the stress of being micromanaged - what does that do to you as a 70-year-old adult?

HONEYMAN: Well, I'd like to think of myself as a young 70-year-old adult. But I'm sure it had...

KING: (Laughter) Fair enough.

HONEYMAN: I'm sure it had an impact on me physically in terms of, you know, feeling anxious. I mean, I would wake up sometimes in the middle of the night or during - in the shower, thinking about cases and the impact of the cases.

KING: Was your job something that made you anxious before this?

HONEYMAN: There's always anxiety and creative pressure associated with a job that has life-impacting effects. And I knew that every day, every complicated decision I made would either fracture a family - because it had to happen because of the nature of the crimes they committed within the law that I was bound to follow - or I would be granting a benefit that 100 or 200 years from now could be traced back to that moment for me. So it's both anxious and exhilarating at the same time.

KING: Is there a specific case that you remember where you think, OK, the ramifications of what I decided in this case will have an impact on this person's life and their family's life for the next decades, next centuries even?

HONEYMAN: I received a letter from a woman from one of the Central American countries who explained to me that she was writing to me knowing I probably would not remember her and that she'd appeared in my courting at the saddest day of her life - was the day that she and her mother were arrested for not having status in the United States. They had fled to the United States because her mother, and her to some extent, were horrifically abused in a domestic violence context.

And the happiest day in her life was the day that I was able to find under the law a justification to grant her asylum in the United States. And she was writing to me to tell me that she had graduated from college somewhere in Florida, and she was applying to law schools.

KING: Wow.

HONEYMAN: And she wanted to know what an impact I had had on her life and that she wanted to be a lawyer to give back and contribute to the America that had given her a chance and, in her view, had literally saved her life.

KING: Now that you're outside the system, what is one policy that the Trump administration has put into place or one change that they've made to the immigration court system that you would like to see halted?

HONEYMAN: I would want future administrations and the Congress to think of immigration judges as judges, literally, and give them the autonomy and the independence and the confidence to make decisions without political interference or overreach. And the only way to do that is to create an independent court where the judge makes a decision and the judge isn't afraid of how many cases he has to complete for the year or whether some political actor is going to be looking over his shoulder and say, I don't agree with that decision; we're going to find a way to put pressure on you.


INSKEEP: Noel spoke there with Charles Honeyman, an immigration judge on courts in New York and Philadelphia who retired in January after 24 years of service.

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