Volume 33
Issue 2
Winter '19

Bureaucrats in Robes: Immigration “Judges” and the Trappings of “Courts”

Written By: Amit Jain


As U.S. immigration policy and its human impact gain popular salience, some have questioned whether immigration courts—often the first-line adjudicators of deportation—are “courts” at all in the American adversarial legal tradition. This Article aims to answer this question through a focus on the role of the immigration judge (IJ). Informed by in-depth interviews with twelve former IJs and three former supervisory officials, I argue that immigration courts present with superficial hallmarks of adversarial courts, but increasingly exhibit core features of a tightly hierarchical bureaucracy. Although not all features of an immigration bureaucracy are inherently undesirable, masking a bureaucracy with judicial trappings results in a deceptive facade of process that likely limits scrutiny from federal courts and calms public discontent with harsh immigration laws. In light of this phenomenon, enhancing IJ independence through the creation of an Article I immigration court would solve some problems with immigration adjudication but risk papering over others. Instead, achieving a fair system will require both procedural and substantive reforms.

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