An Associated Press analysis shows that President Donald Trump's administration has appointed at least 190 immigration judges, accounting for 43 percent of the total. The hires helped expand the immigration bench by more than 100 since September 2016; by comparison, President Barack Obama had a net gain of fewer than 50 judges from 2010 to 2016.
The AP analysis also found that Trump has continued a trend from past administrations in hiring large numbers of former military lawyers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys as judges. Nearly 1 in 5 sitting judges appointed under Trump was a military lawyer, and half previously worked for ICE.
The administration has ramped up staffing in a bid to reduce enormous delays in the overwhelmed immigration court system, which has nearly 900,000 cases. Immigrants seeking to stay in the country often wait years for a hearing, let alone a decision.
Critics say Trump's selections are no coincidence at a time when the president is trying hard to curtail immigration, especially for the tens of thousands of Central Americans arriving at the border in hopes of winning asylum.
"My thinking is they want to bring in people who they think have the professional experience that will lead them to interpret the law in the way the attorney general wants it to be interpreted, which is, basically, Central American domestic violence and gang claims are not valid asylum claims," said Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge.
Immigration judges — who are employed by the Justice Department, not the judicial branch — make critical decisions about who gets asylum and green cards to stay in the United States and who must return to their home countries, shaping the lives of immigrants and their families and the fate of Trump's crackdown.
The judges have been taking a harder line under Trump than in the previous administration, denying 65 percent of asylum cases during the 2018 fiscal year, compared with 55 percent two years earlier, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Last year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued guidance narrowing the scope of asylum claims, though it was later blocked by a judge. Other new rules set performance targets for judges and bar them from shelving cases.
The number of immigration judges stood at 444 in April, according to records provided by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the courts. And the hiring is expected to continue. The administration wants to add 100 in the next fiscal year, said Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the office.
The latest additions include a Navy-deep sea diver who worked more than a decade as a military attorney, a Los Angeles prosecutor who tried federal drug cases and held posts in Nigeria and Pakistan, and an attorney who worked more than two decades for ICE.
Tapping military lawyers and immigration trial attorneys for these positions isn't a new phenomenon. Of those appointed during the Obama administration who remain on the bench, about 13 percent have military law experience and more than half worked for ICE, the AP's analysis shows.
Mattingly said the system's judges are hired through an open, merit-based process, and she rejected "insinuations that its judges lack integrity or competence based on the clients they may have represented prior to becoming judges."
Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, who heads the immigration judges' union, said the group welcomes new hires to help with the massive dockets but worries they will feel more pressured by case quotas set by the courts. On computer screens, color-coded graphics constantly remind judges of how close they are to meeting or missing performance targets.
"We are now seeing a super majority with prosecutorial or military background experience," said Tabaddor, whose group has long called for more diverse hires and wants the courts to become independent of the Justice Department. "Any court that wants to have the integrity and respect of the community needs to reflect the demographics of the community."
Immigrant advocates have long pressed for more judges. Some have joined with the judges' union in calling for independent immigration courts to reduce the administration's influence. Former Rep. Robert Goodlatte, a Republican who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said more judges have long been needed to keep up with the surge in asylum cases. But the hires, he said, are only part of the solution so long as large numbers of migrants continue to arrive on the southern border.
"As long as those numbers are still exploding, even with the addition of the judges, they'll still be bailing water, if you will," said Goodlatte, himself a former immigration attorney. Some immigration lawyers said they found the new judges to be more thoughtful than those who have managed the dockets for years. Others said they worry that less-experienced judges with military or government background are more likely to defer to federal authorities in their rulings.
Some critics have accused the Trump administration of letting politics affect hiring decisions. Heidi Burakiewicz, a Washington employment lawyer, said she represents four candidates for immigration judge and appeals board jobs who received offers during the Obama administration and saw them rescinded after Trump took office.
In Los Angeles, more than a dozen immigration judges have been added by the Trump administration, including Leon Francis, who worked for decades in the military as an attorney and judge. Recently, Francis heard a Guatemalan woman recount how she came to the U.S. with her partner and year-old daughter after gang members tried to extort money from them at their grocery store. The partner was shot a month later, she said.
Francis asked why the couple didn't report the threat to police or prosecutors. After a 50-minute recess, he turned down the woman's asylum request, citing inconsistencies and a failure to prove the Guatemalan government was unable to protect her.
A few weeks earlier, Francis heard an Armenian woman describe how she and her husband flew to seek refuge on the U.S.-Mexico border after police in her homeland detained, beat and threatened her for joining anti-government rallies. After a 40-minute recess, he returned with a decision.
"You've won your case," he said, "so congratulations."