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The Justice Department has moved to decertify the union of immigration judges, a maneuver that threatens to muffle an organization whose members have sometimes been openly critical of the White House's immigration enforcement agenda.

The department filed a petition Friday asking the Federal Labor Relations Authority to determine whether the union, the National Association of Immigration Judges, should have its certification revoked because its members are considered "management officials" ineligible to collectively organize, according to a Justice Department spokesman.

The move suggested escalating tensions between immigration judges desperate for greater resources and a Justice Department pushing them to quickly address a backlog of immigration cases.

"This is a misguided effort to minimize our impact," said Judge Amiena Khan, vice president of the judges union, which has publicly criticized the use of a quota system in immigration court and other attempts to speed up proceedings.

"We serve as a check and balance on management prerogatives, and that's why they are doing this to us," Khan said.

Unlike other federal judges who are part of the judicial branch, immigration judges are appointed by the attorney general and are employees of the Justice Department. Although sitting judges are prohibited from speaking publicly about issues that could be considered political, representatives of the immigration judges union can speak publicly about Justice Department policies on behalf of its members.

This is not the first time an administration has challenged the organization. President Bill Clinton's administration also tried to decertify the immigration judges union, a move that the Federal Labor Relations Authority rejected, according to former immigration judges.

Both Khan and the union president, Judge Ashley Tabaddor, have spoken out repeatedly against what they say is an attempt to turn immigration judges from neutral arbiters of the law to law enforcement agents enacting the White House's policies. They have called for immigration judges to be independent of the Justice Department.

Last year, the union criticized the department's quota system, which required immigration judges to complete 700 cases per year, as well as a move to bar judges from an administrative tool they had previously used to reduce their caseloads. The union says the focus on efficiency impedes judges' ability to work through complicated cases and could affect the due process rights of immigrants in court.

The pressure to hear more cases more quickly amounts to "psychological warfare," Tabaddor said last year.

Addressing some of the union's concerns, the Justice Department has tried to tackle the backlog, which now totals more than 830,000 cases, by hiring more immigration judges. Judges appointed by President Donald Trump now make up 43% of the nation's immigration judges, a larger share than under any of his five predecessors, according to a recent analysis by The Associated Press. A large number of his appointees are former military or Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers, the analysis found.

But that hiring has not been accompanied by other necessary support, Khan said.

"I can't work alone, I am reliant on support staff," said Khan. "Right now there are two judges to one support staff person," which has delayed the progress of cases despite the additional judges, she said.

The judges union plans to officially respond to the Justice Department's petition once it receives official notification from the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

If the attempt to decertify the union is successful, it could leave judges without recourse for their already overwhelming workload, judges said.

"The union won't be able to help judges with overall working conditions at a time when most all judges would tell you working conditions are worse now than they have ever been," said Paul Schmidt, a former immigration judge.

Khan called the Justice Department's petition part of "a systematic attack on unions" representing federal employees under the Trump administration. Last year, Trump signed a series of executive orders that rolled back the workplace role of unions for at least 2 million federal workers and made it easier to fire them. The administration said the move would make the government more efficient.

The Justice Department's recent petition will most likely prompt an investigation by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, according to a department spokesman.

A Section on 08/11/2019

Print Headline: Agency wants to decertify immigration judges union

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