The Trump administration will pause its hiring of immigration judges, slow its procuring of support staff, and cancel a training conference, dealing a setback to the government's efforts to cut down on a crushing backlog of cases, according to a Justice Department email obtained by BuzzFeed News.
James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, notified immigration court staffers in an email Wednesday morning that the timing of the 2019 budget process has left them "considerably short of being able to fulfill all of our current operational needs."
McHenry cited increases in costs related to transcriptions, operational needs, and interpreters.
“This challenging budget situation has led us to a position where difficult financial decisions need to be made,” wrote McHenry.
As a result of the funding issues, McHenry said, the court does not “anticipate” it will be able to hire additional judges after an already scheduled class of judges is brought on board in April. The budget costs will also impact the court's hiring of 250 attorneys needed to support immigration judges.
The pause on hiring delivers a blow to an administration that has long complained that the immigration court backlog, which has increased in recent years to more than 800,000 cases, has led to wait times stretching months and years.
The budget signed by President Trump this year had been described as a way for the immigration court to hire dozens of additional immigration judge teams.
A Department of Justice official, Steven Stafford, disputed the notion that it would freeze hiring, arguing that it was simply not continuing to hire judges at the same pace. McHenry noted that the administration had hired 174 new immigration judges in the last two years and now has more than 400 judges on staff.
The news comes a day before McHenry is set to speak before the House Appropriations Committee and as the court withstands criticisms from the union that represents immigration judges and moves to increase productivity, including quotas.
In recent months, many judges, who oversee asylum claims and deportation cases, have retired or resigned citing interference in how they were handling cases.
“This administration has justified so many of their more draconian policies in terms of ‘We have got to lower the backlog’ and then all of a sudden they don’t have the funds to hire more immigration judges,” said Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge. “If their true goal is to provide fair adjudications more quickly, then this is inconsistent with that. More people will wait longer.”
The nationwide rollout of a new online filing system, meant to help improve efficiency, will be frozen, McHenry said, and additional delays on new court spaces will also be possible this year.
“We are doing our best at headquarters to ensure that our funds are spent in the most fiscally responsible manner possible,” he said in the email to staffers, “while consistently meeting the needs and mission of the agency.”