Migrants may soon have a much harder time finding lawyers and understanding their rights in immigration court, as the Trump administration pursues a major overhaul of the agency that oversees those proceedings.
The crucial office that provides basic legal information to migrants and helps connect some of them to pro-bono immigration lawyers will be merged into a Trump-created unit widely viewed as the nerve center of his immigration power grab. Though Friday’s reorganization rule makes no specific threat to shutter those legal assistance programs, the president has wanted to kill them for more than a year.
The bureaucratic reshuffle leaves the assistance programs “buried deep in the bowels” of an agency that today “never does anything without some ulterior political motive relating to the restrictionist immigration agenda,” retired immigration judge Paul Schmidt told reporters Friday.
The regulations concern the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), where the work of applying immigration laws to individual human cases gets done. In addition to burying the legal-assistance work in a team Trump created, the rule endows EOIR’s director with vast new power to change how immigration laws are applied.
The proposal “shows [the] Trump Administration’s ‘weaponization’ of EOIR as a means of implementing restrictionist policies by precedent decision without going through legislation or rule making,” Schmidt told reporters in an email.
Immigration courts, despite their name, are not independent judicial forums. And because deportation is a civil proceeding rather than a criminal one, migrants who come before the courts are not guaranteed counsel.
Any given migrant’s ability to vindicate the rights they do have in immigration court therefore ends up resting, in many cases, with the presiding judge. If the law says a given migrant’s case might merit a stay of deportation or other relief, and an immigration judge applies the law accordingly, the system slows down and fewer people are evicted from the country.
The Trump administration has repeatedly pushed immigration judges to set aside those legal niceties in favor of rapid removal orders for almost everyone they see. Judges now face discipline if they fail to clear 700 cases per calendar year, a speed judges have repeatedly said makes a mockery of due process.
The big winner in Friday’s order is EOIR’s new Office of Policy, created at the start of President Donald Trump’s term. That team will take over management of a key legal orientation program for giving migrants a basic overview of the legal process they’re facing and the rights they have within it.
The Office of Policy has become the prime mover behind various Trump efforts to create a deportation assembly line that favors speedy removals over the fuller individual consideration envisioned in immigration law, experts said.
“The Office of Policy… has in many ways led the Trump administration’s agenda to reduce the independence of the immigration court system,” American Immigration Council policy analyst Aaron Reichlin-Melnick said in an interview.
Currently, EOIR’s Office of Legal Access Programs helps link some migrants to pro-bono immigration attorneys as part of its legal orientation work. Having a lawyer “is arguably the single most important factor in determining whether someone is allowed to remain in the United States” at the conclusion of their immigration case, Reichlin-Melnick said.
The new rule moves the pro-bono program into the Trump-created policy office, along with the legal orientation system that’s meant to give migrants without attorneys a fighting chance.
There is nothing in the rule that says the DOJ is killing the pro-bono system or the legal orientation program, Reichlin-Melnick stressed.
“But we know in the past this is something the administration has gone after,” he said, noting that the White House tried to defund the legal orientation work in 2018 only for a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to insist it continue.
“It’s a popular program with pretty much everybody,” he said, “except those inside the Trump administration who think we shouldn’t be spending money on helping people know their rights, because that slows things down.”
The same Office of Policy is widely blamed for concocting the 700-case-per-year standard that judges and experts view as an intentional demolition of immigrants’ due process rights. It is also seen as the driving force behind a new piece of technology that displays a speed gauge on judges’ desks while they work, glaring red when they take the time to explore factual disputes or delve into process issues of a given case and fall behind the administration’s speed requirements.
“That kind of pressure creates problems, even if it doesn’t mean that people are going to explicitly deny cases because of it,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “Even the most well-minded people are affected by someone essentially standing behind them tapping their watch.”
The case-completion rule in question technically came from a different EOIR office. But Trump’s new policy office is understood to have crafted it and passed it to the appropriate internal authority to promulgate.
Last year, National Association of Immigration Judges union head Ashley Tabaddor urged her colleagues to take whatever time a case requires regardless of the administration’s pressure tactics. This summer, the administration announced its intention to dissolve the NAIJ and strip judges of labor protections.
These maneuvers “create the appearance of coercion” of a professional legal staff who are responsible for applying the law to a complex array of individual circumstances, Reichlin-Melnick said. A political team that isn’t getting the results it wants from immigration courts when they scrutinize the facts is turning to threats – judges can be denied raises or terminated outright over the running-clock rules – and increasing the authority its Office of Policy holds over those judges.
The new rule “raises a number of concerns about conflict of interest that could play out. Maybe they won’t – at this point it’s a little bit premature to panic, or to make large declaratory statements about how this rule will affect the process,” he said. “But it certainly raises concerns.”
Former immigration judge Schmidt was blunter.
The new policy office’s “primary role appears to be to ensure that EOIR functions as an adjunct of DHS Enforcement and that any adjudication trends that enhance Due Process or vindicate Immigrants rights are quickly identified so that they can be wiped out by precedents or policy changes,” Schmidt wrote.
“Look for the [EOIR] Director over time to reinsert himself in the adjudicative activities of EOIR,” he wrote, “for the purpose of insuring subservience to [the] Administration’s political enforcement priorities.”