The Trump administration has introduced production quotas for immigration judges in an effort to reduce enormous court backlogs, raising concern among judges and attorneys that decisions may be unfairly rushed.
The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review said judges must complete 700 cases a year to earn a satisfactory grade. The standards, which take effect Oct. 1, include six other measures indicating how much time judges should spend on different types of cases and court motions.
The move, while significant, didn't come as a surprise. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who oversees immigration courts, has sought major changes to the long-clogged courts as a sharp increase in deportation arrests under President Donald Trump has pushed the backlog above 650,000 cases. In December, Sessions wrote judges that performance measures would aid in "the efficient and timely completion of cases and motions" while maintaining fairness.
James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, used similar language in an email Friday that details the new measures for the department's approximately 350 immigration judges.
"Using metrics to evaluate performance is neither novel nor unique to (the Executive Office for Immigration Review)," McHenry wrote. "The purpose of implementing these metrics is to encourage efficient and effective case management while preserving immigration judge discretion and due process."
The Associated Press obtained a copy of McHenry's memo and performance plan, whose contents were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The measures are highly specific. A judge who completes more than 560 cases a year but fewer than 700 "needs improvement." Deciding fewer than 560 cases a year is deemed unsatisfactory.
The Justice Department said Monday that judges complete an average of 678 cases a year.
Under one benchmark, judges must rule the same day on every plea by asylum seekers to pass an initial threshold of establishing "credible" or "reasonable" fear to earn a satisfactory mark, unless the Homeland Security Department is responsible for them failing to show. Anything less than 80 percent is considered unsatisfactory.
The National Immigration Judges Association, whose recent collective bargaining agreement allows for performance metrics, strongly opposes the numerical targets and will explore options under federal labor law, said Dana Leigh Marks, a union spokeswoman.
"We believe the imposition of numerical performance metrics is completely, utterly contrary to judicial independence," said Marks, who is also an immigration judge in San Francisco. "We believe assessing quality is fine, not quantity."
Judges can argue that the nature of their cases justifies a lower completion rate, but Marks said keeping logs will add to their work burden and potentially create more backlog. She also said people may be more inclined to appeal decisions by arguing that the quotas denied them a fair hearing.
Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said immigration attorneys were deeply concerned that cases will be "rushed through."
"Subjecting judges to numerical goals undermines one of the core principles of our judicial system, which is really a fair day in court," she said.