Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn't want America's immigration judges to let "sympathy" for undocumented immigrants affect their rulings.
"When we depart from the law and create nebulous legal standards out of a sense of sympathy for the personal circumstances of a respondent in our immigration courts, we do violence to the rule of law and constitutional fabric that bind this great nation," Sessions told the nation's 44 newest immigration judges yesterday, according to BuzzFeed News. "Your job is to apply the law—even in tough cases," he added.
Sessions warned that immigration lawyers will try to work around the law "like water seeping through an earthen dam" in order "to advance their clients' interests." But "theirs is not the duty to uphold the integrity of the [Immigration and Nationality Act]," he added. "That is our most serious duty."
Sessions' remarks were nothing more than a "political statement," says Dana Marks, an immigration judge and spokesperson for the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ). "It did appear to be a one-sided argument made by a prosecutor," she tells BuzzFeed.
Since the immigration court system is run by the Justice Department, Sessions has final say on who gets to be an immigration judge and how the judges approach their cases. In June, for instance, Sessions broke with precedent by making it harder for victims of gangs or domestic violence to qualify for asylum. Victims must now "show that the government condoned the private actions or demonstrated an inability to protect the victims," according to CNN.
That new policy is a "correct interpretation" of the law, Sessions said yesterday, claiming that immigrants would frequently abuse the system to in order to gain asylum. "We all know that a lot of those crossing our borders are leaving a difficult life," he said. "Asylum was never meant to provide escape from all the problems people face every day around the world."
NAIJ President Ashley Tabaddor tells BuzzFeed that the immigration court system should be independent of the Justice Department. "We cannot possibly be put in this bind of being accountable to someone who is so clearly committed to the prosecutorial role," she says. Immigration cases are currently prosecuted by Department of Homeland Security attorneys, meaning both the lawyers and the judges essentially answer to the Trump administration.
Tabaddor is right. Judges are supposed to be impartial, but the Justice Department just wants them to mirror the Trump administration's hardline stance.
And yes, obviously, it is judges' job to apply the law. Sessions isn't wrong about that. But the larger issue here is that America's immigration system is broken—and that's a problem Sessions shows little interest in fixing.