In the midst of a Monday morning tweetstorm, President Donald Trump repeated a line he's been pushing for months: that hiring "thousands" of immigration judges is the wrong approach to border security.
But the US government is not hiring thousands of immigration judges, and there is no immediate plan to do so.
US immigration courts are an arm of the Justice Department; they're different from the US district and appeals courts, which are independent of the executive branch. Recognizing the huge backlog of cases facing immigration judges, Congress earlier this year approved funding for 484 immigration judges. That's up from the 384 judges previously approved.
The Justice Department is hiring more immigration judges, but nowhere near the "thousands" Trump keeps mentioning. According to Los Angeles–based Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, there are currently 334 judges. Even if the Justice Department filled all open seats, that would be 150 more judges, at most.
"While we would welcome the number of Immigration Judges that the President has cited, as the backlog is the result of years of disproportionate funding of law enforcement without the comparable increase in the Court's budget, we are currently far from being fully funded and having the number of judges necessary to resolve the backlog," Tabaddor told BuzzFeed News in an email.
One bill pitched by a group of Senate Republicans aimed at addressing the border separations issue would authorize 225 more immigration judges — if that passed, there would be a maximum of 709 immigration judges, not thousands. Another measure proposed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would authorize 375 more judges, bringing the total number of authorized positions to 859.
A Democratic bill proposed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to address border separations doesn't include any increase in immigration judges.
A White House spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. A Justice Department spokesperson referred questions about the president's comments to the White House.
Trump has referred to "thousands" of immigration judges earlier this year, but it's become a regular refrain in the past week, as the administration faced intense criticism over family separations at the border. In a June 19 speech in Washington, Trump referred to "thousands" of immigration judges, first suggesting that the government was in the process of hiring that many judges, and then later saying there were already thousands of judges working at the border.
"And it got so crazy that all of these thousands — we now have thousands of judges — border judges — thousands and thousands," he said.
He repeated the line in a tweet two days later, saying, "We shouldn't be hiring judges by the thousands, as our ridiculous immigration laws demand."
There were more than 700,000 cases pending in US immigration courts as of May, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a government data research project housed at Syracuse University. The Justice Department earlier this year established a case completion standard for immigration judges of clearing 700 cases per year.
Even if Congress approved enough immigration judges to clear the backlog at that rate, it would still mean hiring up to 1,000 judges. No one has proposed that.
Zoe Tillman is a legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Zoe Tillman at email@example.com.
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