SAN FRANCISCO — Rebecca Jamil was sitting in a nondescript hotel ballroom in suburban Virginia when she realized that her dream job — being an immigration judge — was no longer tenable. It was June 11, 2018, and then–attorney general Jeff Sessions, her boss, was speaking to a room packed with immigration judges, running through his list of usual complaints over what was, in his estimation, a broken asylum system.
Toward the end of the speech, Sessions let slip some big news: He had decided whether domestic abuse and gang victims could be granted asylum in the US. Advocates, attorneys, and judges had been waiting months to see what Sessions, who in his role as attorney general had the power to review cases, would do. After all, it would determine the fate of thousands of asylum-seekers, many fleeing dangerous situations in Central America.
Sessions didn’t reveal to the room the details of his ruling but Jamil, based in San Francisco since she was appointed in 2016, learned later that day that the attorney general had decided to dramatically restrict asylum protections for domestic abuse victims.
“I’d seen the faces of these families,” the 43-year-old judge said. “They weren’t abstractions to me.”
Jamil, a mother of two young daughters, had been shaken by the images and sounds that came as a result of the Trump administration’s policy to separate families at the border. As a judge who oversaw primarily cases of women and children fleeing abuse and dangers abroad, this was the last straw.
Soon after, she stepped down from the court.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she told friends. “I felt that I couldn’t be ‘Rebecca Jamil, representative of the attorney general’ while these things were going on.”
In many ways, her resignation underscores the tenuous position of immigration judges, who are overseen by the attorney general and susceptible to the shifting winds of each administration. To avoid potential conflicts, the union that represents the judges has long called for its court to be an independent body, separate from the Department of Justice.
The Trump administration has undertaken a monumental overhaul of the way immigration judges, which total around 400 across the country, work: placing quotas on the number of cases they should complete every year, ending their ability to indefinitely suspend certain cases, restricting when asylum can be granted, and pouring thousands of previously closed cases back into court dockets.
In the meantime, the case backlog has jumped to more than 800,000 under the administration and wait times have continued to skyrocket to hundreds of days.
The quotas in particular have made judges feel as if they were cogs in a deportation machine, as opposed to neutral arbiters given time to thoughtfully analyze the merits of each case.
“The job has become exceedingly more difficult as the court has veered even farther away from being administered as a court rather than a law enforcement bureaucracy,” said Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge who heads the National Association of Immigration Judges, a union representing around 350 judges.
And it’s not just Jamil who has departed because of the massive changes to the court undertaken by the Trump administration, according to observers within the Department of Justice and those on the outside. While some, like Jamil, have resigned, others have retired early in large part because of the policies instituted under Trump, they said.
For those remaining at the immigration court, the mood is bleak.
“It has become so emotionally brutal and exhausting that many people I know are leaving or talking about finding an exit strategy,” said one immigration judge who declined to be named. “Morale has never, ever been lower.”
Another Justice Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told BuzzFeed News, “It is exhausting when you feel undervalued by the people at the top of your organization, especially when they are motivated by partisanship and have not spent their careers doing the job that you do.”
Tabaddor, the head of the union, said that her group has noticed a higher rate of retirements and resignations than in the past because of the way judges have been treated under Trump.
Some have been bold in their timing. John Richardson, a former immigration judge in Phoenix, stepped down on Sep. 30, 2018 — the day before the administration instituted a quota for the number of cases to be completed by judges.
"The timing of my retirement was a direct result of the draconian policies of the Administration, the relegation of [judges] to the status of 'action officers' who deport as many people as possible as soon as possible with only token due process, and blaming [judges] for the immigration crisis caused by decades of neglect and under funding of the Immigration Courts,” he said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Another judge who resigned from the bench in September told staff members in a goodbye email, “I know things are getting difficult for you at [the Executive Office for Immigration Review], but I believe all you will ‘ride through the storm’ and ‘come out with a smile.’”
There have long been work challenges for immigration judges, including heavy caseloads and assignments, leading to comparatively high burnout rates. Justice Department officials told BuzzFeed News that concerns over retirements were nothing new.
“In 2015, 2013, and 2011, the National Association of IJs [immigration judges] raised the same concerns. In 2011, the NAIJ said that 'stress on judges has reached unbearable levels ... a large contributing factor to retirement at the earliest possible opportunity,’” said Steven Stafford, a Justice Department spokesperson. “What is actually new is that we are hiring more and more IJs and doing so faster than ever before. Today we have 68.9 percent more IJs than we did in 2010, and that number is only rising.”
According to the agency, from the beginning of fiscal year 2014 through Feb. 12, 2019, 94 immigration judges have retired, separated, or died. More than a third of those judges, 32, have left since Oct. 1, 2017. The agency does not track why judges leave their positions.
To those within the court and others who have recently retired, the situation has worsened to an unprecedented level. Richardson, the former judge in Phoenix, said he would have continued presiding over immigration cases if the status quo had remained.
“Yes, I was 75 years old with over 50 years of honorable federal service with the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, but had no plans for retirement as long as I was treated with respect, appreciated, and provided adequate support,” he said. “I had 28 years as an IJ and very much enjoyed my job, even with the poor funding and lack of support by Congress and the White House during that 28 years.”
Jeff Chase, a former immigration judge who stepped down years ago and who speaks regularly with others who’ve left the bench, was blunt in his characterization.
“The fastest growth industry is former immigration judges,” Chase said. Those still on the bench have told him, “It’s horrible. Whatever you think it is, it is much, much worse.”
In the meantime, the Trump administration has hired more than 100 judges to not only fill the vacancies of those who’ve retired but to add numbers to the bench. It’s a rehauling of the courts that could “have a drastic impact,” according to Chase.
Many of the judges retiring in recent months are experienced jurists, hired by the Clinton administration in the mid to late ’90s, he said. These judges, Chase said, were more willing to push back on claims made in court by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or to allow immigrants extended time to make their cases in what could otherwise be a rushed procedure.
In their place, Chase said, are judges hired by the new administration with case completion quotas, a two-year probation period, and a mandate to avoid showing sympathy for the people appearing before them.
“Even if it doesn’t show up on the sheet, just the level of humanity, that makes a huge difference — that’s what this administration is trying to remove from the immigration judge corps,” he said.
For her part, Jamil wanted to become an immigration judge from the earliest moments of her legal career. After working as a staff attorney at the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals, she joined the government as a prosecutor with ICE in 2011, where she was able to use discretion to focus deportation efforts on those with serious criminal backgrounds. Under the Trump administration, ICE attorneys have been told that nearly all undocumented immigrants are priorities for deportation.
In 2014, Jamil took a chance to fulfill her dream: She applied to become an immigration judge. It was a 17-month process, full of drawn-out interviews in Washington, DC, but finally, in 2015 she received a phone call informing her that she got the job.
“I thought, and I must have told most people I know, that this is the last job that I would ever have. It’s all I wanted to do,” she said.
Jamil dedicated herself to the exhausting career. She oversaw a docket made up primarily of families and regularly heard cases in which women and children applied for asylum based on abuse that they had experienced by partners and family members abroad.
Day in and day out, Jamil heard intense testimony of physical and sexual violence against women and children.
“You’re sitting in a windowless room and people tell you the very worst parts of their life and you have to decide if it is enough to stay in the US,” she said. “That is very tiring day after day to be the person who makes that decision.”
Then, under the Trump administration, things started to change. In 2018, Sessions instituted a new policy, severely limiting when judges could suspend certain cases. Suddenly, her docket expanded and she wasn’t allowed to decide which cases deserved to remain in court and which didn’t.
Jamil and fellow immigration judges were in attendance at the Virginia conference where Sessions spoke for annual trainings on courtroom procedure. The year before, jurists heard substantive legal updates and trainings on bias in the courtroom.
This version of the training, however, felt different.
“The entire conference was profoundly disturbing. Do things as fast as possible. There was an overarching theme of disbelieving aliens and their claims and how to remove people faster,” Jamil said. “That is not what I saw my job as an immigration judge to be. I was not trained to do that.”
Soon after she returned home, Jamil put in her resignation. Her colleagues fretted, probing her about whether she had considered the type of judge that could fill her spot on the bench and the impact that could have.
She didn’t have an answer, but she knew that she couldn’t do it any longer.
“Family separations; Sessions making his own case law on asylum; when we could continue cases — I could no longer sit below the seal of the Department of Justice and represent the Department of Justice at that point,” Jamil said. “They just chipped away at our authority on a daily basis. It felt like we weren’t really judges. It was frustrating and demoralizing.”
A former colleague, Laura Ramirez, worked for years as an immigration judge in San Francisco. In December, she retired at the earliest date possible, five days after she turned 60.
The changes put in place by the Trump administration, especially the case quotas, and the politicization of her job, became too much to handle.
The loss of judges like Jamil and others could be immeasurable to both immigrants and Department of Homeland Security attorneys, Ramirez said.
“For the system of justice, there’s these highly qualified, fair, thoughtful people who are being squeezed out of the system for political reasons, basically,” she said. “If people like her are squeezed out, it’s a loss to people who appear before her. The system can’t be fair if good people like her are pushed out.”