⚖️🗽SATURDAY MINI-ESSAY: ONE TINY STEP FOR MANKIND: But It’s Going To Take Much More Than Finally Replacing A Few Stunningly Unqualified Judges To Save EOIR!
ONE TINY STEP FOR MANKIND: But It’s Going To Take Much More Than Finally Replacing A Few Stunningly Unqualified Judges To Save EOIR!
By Paul Wickham Schmidt
June 25, 2022
Over the last few weeks the long overdue and essential process of weeding out poorly qualified Immigration Judges — still on “probation” at EOIR — finally got off to a very modest start.
Imagine yourself as a refugee fighting for your life in an asylum system that’s already stacked against you and where the “judges” work for the Attorney General, part of the Executive Branch’s political and law enforcement apparatus.
How would you like your life to be in the hands of (now) former Immigration Judge Matthew O’Brien. He was appointed in 2020 by former AG Bill Barr — a staunch defender of the Trump/Miller White Nationalist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant agenda.
Nativism A “Qualification?”
What made O’Brien supposedly “qualified” to be a “fair and impartial” administrative judge?
Was it his enthusiastic support for the cruel, inhumane, illegal, and unconstitutional “policy” of family separation? See, e.g., https://www.fairus.org/issue/border-security/truth-about-zero-tolerance-and-family-separation-what-americans-need-know.
Thankfully, O’Brien will pass into history. But, the damage inflicted by the “official policy of child abuse” will adversely affect generations.
Or, perhaps it was O’Brien’s intimate connection with a leading nativist group. Immediately prior to his appointment, he was the “Research” Director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (“FAIR”) — a group renowned for sloppy to non-existent “research” and presenting racially-motivated myths and fear mongering as “facts.”
Here’s a “debunking” of some of their bogus claims by Alex Nowrasteh @ CATO Institute — hardly a “liberal think tank!” https://www.cato.org/blog/fairs-fiscal-burden-illegal-immigration-study-fatally-flawed.
As noted by Nowrasteh, that’s not the only example of FAIR providing “bogus research papers” designed to “rev up hate” and demean the contributions of immigrants both documented and undocumented.
Indeed, recent legitimate scholarly research, based on facts and statistics rather than personal bias, refutes the anti-immigrant myths peddled by FAIR and other nativist shill groups. See, e.g., https://immigrationcourtside.com/2022/06/13/%f0%9f%93%9abooks-streets-of-gold-americas-untold-story-of-immigrant-success-by-ran-abramitzky-and-leah-boustan-reviewed-by-michael-luca-washpost/.
The Anti-Defamation League (“ADL”), one of America’s most venerable anti-hate, anti-misinformation groups, founded more than a century ago “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” had this to say about O’Brien’s former employer:
While the majority of the extreme anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. emanates from fringe groups like white supremacists and other nativists, there are a number of well-established anti-immigrant groups such as Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA and The Remembrance Project which have secured a foothold in mainstream politics, and their members play a major role in promoting divisive, dangerous rhetoric and views that demonize immigrants. A number of these groups have attempted to position themselves as legitimate advocates against “illegal immigration” while using stereotypes, conspiracy theories and outright bigotry to disparage immigrants and hold them responsible for a number of societal ills. A decade ago, most of this bigotry was directed primarily at Latino immigrants, but today, Muslim and Haitian immigrants, among others, are also targeted.
. . . .
There is a distinct anti-immigrant movement in this country, whose roots can be traced back to the 1970s. Groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) hope to influence general audiences with somewhat sanitized versions of their anti-immigrant views. In their worldview, non-citizens do not enjoy any status or privilege, and any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or refugees is portrayed as a threat to current citizens. Like some other problematic movements, the anti-immigrant movement also has a more extreme wing, which includes border vigilante groups, as well as groups and individuals that seek to demonize immigrants by using racist, sometimes threatening language.
So, perhaps, you say, once actually “on the bench,” Judge O’Brien was able to overcome his biases and knowledge gaps and function as a fair and impartial judicial officer. Nope! Not in the cards!
According to TRAC, O’Brien denied almost every asylum case he heard (96.4% denials). That was, astoundingly, nearly 40% above the average of his colleagues in Arlington and nearly 30% higher than the nationwide asylum denial rate of approximately 67%.
But, to put this in perspective, we have to recognize that this denial rate had already been intentionally and artificially increased by a expanded,”packed,” politicized, “weaponized,” and intentionally “dumbed down” EOIR during the Sessions/Barr era at DOJ. For example, approximately 10 years ago, more than 50% of asylum, cases were being granted annually nationwide, and approximately 75% of the asylum cases in Arlington were granted. See, e.g., https://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/judge2014/00001WAS/index.html. And, even then, most asylum experts would have said that the nationwide grant rate was too low.
Gaming The System For Denial
It’s not that conditions in “refugee/asylum sending” countries have gotten better over the past decade! Far from it! The refugee situation today is as bad as it has ever been since WWII and getting worse every day.
So, why would legal refugee admissions be plunging to record lows (despite a rather disingenuous “increase in the refugee ceiling” by the Biden Administration) and asylum denials up dramatically over the past decade?
It has little or nothing to do with asylum law or the realities of the worldwide refugee flow, particularly from Latin American and Caribbean countries. No, it has to do with an intentional move, started under Bush II, tolerated or somewhat encouraged in the Obama Administration, but greatly accelerated during the Trump-era, to “kneecap” the legal refugee and asylum processing programs. Indeed, the “near zeroing-out” of refugee and asylum admissions and the illegal replacement of Asylum Officers by totally unqualified CBP Agents by the Trump Administration are two of the most egregious examples.
This was “complimented” by an intentional move to weaponize the Immigration Courts at EOIR as a tool of Stephen Miller’s White Nationalist immigration enforcement regime. The number of Immigration Judges doubled, hiring was expedited using an opaque and intentionally restrictive process, and most new appointees were from the ranks of prosecutors — some with little or no experience in asylum law. Even conservative commentators like Nolan Rappaport at The Hill expressed grave concerns about the problematic qualifications of many of the new hires. See, e.g., https://immigrationcourtside.com/2020/02/05/no-expertise-necessary-at-the-new-eoir-immigration-judges-no-longer-need-to-demonstrate-immigration-experience-just-a-willingness-to-send-migrants-to-potential/.
Ironically, the EOIR backlog tripled. Under the “maliciously incompetent management” of the Trump group at DOJ, more judges actually meant more backlog! How is that giving taxpayers “value” for their money?
Some of the new judges, like O’Brien and some of the Immigration Judges “elevated” to the BIA, were appointed specifically because of their established records of anti-asylum bias, rude treatment of attorneys, and dehumanizing treatment of asylum seekers and other migrants.
“Ignorance And Contempt”
It’s not like O’Brien was just your “garden variety” “conservative jurist.” (I’ve actually worked with many of the latter over the years). No, he was notorious for his lack of scholarship, rudeness, and bias!
Here are a few of the comments he received on “RateYourJudge.com:”
“Rarely grants cases. No knowledge of the law, only there to deny cases. He needs to be removed.”
- “Biased judge, hates immigrants and even kids of immigrants.”
- “One of the most condescending and self-righteous judges I have had the displeasure to hear. His word choice and tone left absolutely no doubt that he considered the Respondent to be beneath his notice, even to the point of referring to her as “the female Respondent” and to her domestic partner as a “paramour”. I have heard other judges’ oral opinions on very similar sets of facts, and they were accomplished in a fifth of the time with no loss of dignity to anyone.”
- “This guy’s ignorance about immigration law and contempt for the people who appear before him is staggering. The way he threatens lawyers is reprehensible. EOIR is a disgrace.”
- “Horrible human being with no business being on the bench. Shame on EOIR for allowing him to continue adjudicating cases.”
- “Late, abusive, made up his mind before the case even started, frequently interrupted testimony, yelled at immigrants and their lawyer, and refused to listen to anything we said. Ignorant of the law and facts of the case. He should go back to directing hate groups.”
- “If I could give 0 stars I would.”
To be fair:
- Among the stream of negative comments there were three “positive” comments about O’Brien;
- Most of the comments both positive and negative were “anonymous” or apparent user “pseudonyms;”
- “RateMyImmigrationJudge” is neither comprehensive nor transparent.
Flunking the “Gold Standard”
So, was O’Brien really as horrible as most experts say? Let’s do another type of “reality check.”
Among the other IJs at the Arlington Immigration Court, two stand out as widely respected expert jurists who have served for decades across Administrations of both parties. Judge John Milo Bryant was first appointed as an Immigration Judge in 1987 under the Reagan Administration. Judge Lawrence Owen Burman was appointed in 1998 under the Clinton Administration. With 66 years of judicial service between them, they would be considered more or less the “gold standard” for well-qualified, subject matter expert, fair and impartial Immigration Judges.
Significantly, according to the last TRAC report, O’Brien’s asylum grant rate of 3,6% was approximately 1/15th of Judge Bryant’s and approximately 1/22 of Judge Burman’s. https://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/judgereports/. Case closed! O’Brien should never have been on a bench where asylum seekers lives were at stake and expertise and fairness are supposed to be job requirements!
“Worse Than O’Brien”
What about now former Arlington Immigration Judge David White who was removed at the same time as O’Brien? Apparently, during his relatively short tenure (appointed by Barr in 2020), White was unable to deny enough asylum to qualify for TRAC’s system (100 decisions minimum).
Yet, he made an indelible impression on those “sentenced” to appear before him. Here are comments from RateMyImmigrtionJudge.com:
“This judge is absolutely terrible. Unfair and biased. He is only here to deny asylum cases regardless of what the person has been through. Completely misstates the facts, doesn’t know the law so goes after credibility (using those misstated facts) as an excuse to say there’s no past persecution. Absolute disgrace.”
“Worst judge ever. The clerks at the Immigration Court told the private bar attorneys that they have NEVER seen this judge approve an asylum case. Not one. They have running bets and jokes about him, but he never grants. He writes the denial during the trial instead of listening to the person testify. He is insulting and rude and not at all compassionate about trauma.”
“This is the worst immigration judge in Arlington, hands down. He’s even worse than O’Brien, and O’Brien is an former hate-group director.”
“Terrible immigration judge. Had his mind made up well before our hearing. Came in with a prewritten denial that misstated the law. Was rude and dismissive about my client’s trauma.”
Wow! Worse than O’Brien. That’s quite an achievement.
GOP Court Packing
Fact is, the overt politicization, “weaponization,” and “dumbing down” of the Immigration Courts goes back nearly two decades to AG John Ashcroft and the Bush II Administration. Ashcroft reduced the size of the BIA as a gimmick to “purge” the supposedly “liberal” judges — those, including me, who voted to uphold the legal rights of migrants against government overreach. In other words, our “transgression” was to stand up for due process and the individual rights of immigrants — actually “our job” as properly defined.
And, the downward spiral has continued. The DOJ Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) actually confirmed some of the Bush II improper Immigration Judge hires. But, they avoided dealing with the “BIA purge” that got the ball rolling downhill at EOIR! The GOP has been much more skillful than Dems in reshaping the Immigration Courts to their liking.
During the Trump Administration, putting clearly unqualified IJs who were some of rudest highest denying in America on the BIA was certainly “packing” and “stacking” EOIR against legitimate asylum seekers. Again, however, the OIG failed to “seal the deal” regarding this outrageous conduct that has undermined our entire justice system, fed uncontrollable backlog, and cost human lives that should and could have been saved.
Trump’s “court packing scheme” was no “small potatoes” matter, even if some in the Biden Administration are willfully blind to the continuing human rights and due process disaster at EOIR.
Removing two of the most glaringly unqualified Barr appointees in Arlington is a very modest step by AG Garland in the right direction. But, it’s going to take more, much more, decisive action to clean out the unqualified and the deadwood, bring in true expertise and judicial quality, and restore even a modicum of legitimacy and integrity at EOIR.
Reactionaries’ Predictably Absurdist Reaction
Meanwhile, even this long overdue, well justified, and all too minimal change at EOIR produced totally absurdist reactions from O’Brien and fellow nativists (including some still “hiding out in plain sight” at DOJ) which were picked up by the Washington Times (of course). Don’t believe a word of it!
To understand what really happened and how small this step really was, get the truth in this analysis from Media Matters. https://www.mediamatters.org/washington-times/washington-times-pushes-absurd-claim-biden-court-packing-immigration-courts
Tip Of The Iceberg
The removal of guys like O’Brien and White — who never had any business being placed in “quasi-judicial” positions where they exercised life or death authority over refugees of color whose humanity and legal rights they refused to recognize, is just a beginning. The ethical, competence, and judicial attitude rot at EOIR goes much deeper.
Garland has been dilatory in “cleaning house” at EOIR. Vulnerable individuals who were wrongly rejected rather than properly protected have needlessly suffered, and probably even died, as a result. Poor Immigration Judging and lack of effective, correct, courageous, positive asylum guidance by the BIA has helped fuel a human rights disaster and rule of law collapse at the border!
Perhaps, at long last, Garland has slowly started fixing the unconscionable and unnecessary dysfunction and intentionally ingrained institutional bias at EOIR. But, I’ll believe it when I see it!
Keep Up The Pressure
In the meantime, it’s critical that NDPA members: 1) keep applying for EOIR judgeships; and 2) ratchet up the pressure and demand the removal of all unqualified Immigration Judges and Appellate Immigration Judges who are undermining sound scholarship, due process, fundamental fairness, and human dignity at EOIR!
Human rights matter! Individual rights matter! Immigrants’ rights matter! Good judges matter!
Today, we are surrounded by too many bad judges, at all levels of our justice system, who reject the first three in favor of warped far-right ideologies, dangerous myths, and disregard for human dignity. The existential battle to get good judges into our system has begun. And, Immigration Courts are the primary theater of action!
Due Process Forever!