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The Director Of The Nation’s Immigration Courts Has Stepped Down

During James McHenry's tenure, the Trump administration executed a monumental overhaul of the way immigration judges worked.

Posted on January 27, 2021, at 11:31 a.m. ET

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

James McHenry testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 31, 2018.

James McHenry, the director of the nation’s immigration court system, will step down from his leadership role at the end of this week, according to a memo and email sent to Department of Justice staffers on Wednesday.

During his tenure, the Trump administration executed a monumental overhaul of the way immigration judges worked: 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 increased, and wait times continued to skyrocket.

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.

McHenry, who was a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney before rising in the ranks at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), will resign his role effective on Friday, according to an email he sent to employees. He took over as acting director of EOIR in May 2017 before becoming its permanent leader in 2018. He will move to a different role, as the chief administrative hearing officer, beginning on February 1, 2021.

“I believe EOIR has re-established itself as the preeminent administrative adjudicatory agency in the United States, and because of the foundation you have built, I expect it to remain so for many years to come,” he wrote in an email sent to employees and obtained by BuzzFeed News.

Jean King, a career official at the agency, will take over beginning on Monday. The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some court employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News celebrated the news of McHenry’s departure from the directorship.

“For years, McHenry wrote to EOIR, saying that the agency was on its way to, or already had, 're-established itself as the preeminent administrative adjudicatory agency in the United States.' This was only his opinion, and he sought to obtain his own version of what EOIR should be, with his absurd policy directives and collaborations with the DHS,” said one court employee. “With McHenry gone, I think that EOIR has a great opportunity to get back on its feet and restore fair and practical procedures.”

During the Trump administration, many judges, who oversee asylum claims and deportation cases, retired or resigned citing interference in how they were handling cases.

Some were 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.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.