A Guestworker Program (H-IJ) to Solve the Immigration Judge Shortage?

By David North on July 8, 2010

It's odd that the government has not figured this out for itself.

There is a continuing, one might say chronic, shortage of Immigration Judges in the Justice Department. When then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales poked into the problem in 2006 there were 24 fully funded vacancies. Now according to an excellent report, "Backlog in Immigration Cases Continues to Climb," there are 48 of them.

The Immigration Judge jobs are demanding, the caseload is horrendous, the staff support slight, the work is often rugged emotionally, and the pay for IJs is less than some first- or second-year associates get shortly after leaving one of the Ivy League law schools.

To get the job there is no need to know anything about U.S. immigration law, though if you did, that would give you a little edge. That came out at a congressional hearing last month that inspired a blog of mine. You do need to have seven years of legal experience, though, so you can't recruit the public-spirited types that go directly from law school to poverty or public defender law.

What to do? The average time cases are pending before IJs has moved up to an all-time record of 439 days, according to that article, published by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

I would like to suggest (with a bit of tongue in cheek) that the Justice Department might look to two precedents, one domestic, and the other foreign.

The domestic one would be the H-1B program; it draws talented (and sometimes not-so-talented) foreign workers with high-tech skills into demanding U.S. jobs at pay levels that would not attract similarly talented American workers.

The overseas program is one I have observed and written about, but I do not have a name for it. It operates within what used to be the British Empire, and it fills judicial vacancies in Third World nations (usually former British colonies) with English-speaking judges from other ex-Empire nations. For instance, Belize, the former British Honduras, has several judges from Ghana and other British Commonwealth nations.

The local government pays the judges at local (low) pay levels, and the British government tops up the salaries and provides a pension system to make the jobs attractive. There is a further public benefit, particularly in small island nations where everyone knows everyone; while a local judge in, say, the Solomon Islands, would be hard-pressed to try a fellow tribe member, there is no such problem if the judge grew up in, say, Belize.

There are three bits of glue that holds together this expatriate judicial system: the common exposure to British law (which is much like American law), the common use of the English language, and the extra money from the UK.

My plan would take advantage of two of these common threads (the language and the law) and exchange U.S. for UK money, and start recruiting immigration judges from experienced lawyers and judges in English-speaking nations overseas.

They would hold H-IJ visas, go through a, say, five-month training program, rather than the five-week one in place for our immigration judges, and have the same kind of tenure as the current U.S. immigration judges.

Alternatively, we could give our own judges and potential judges a raise (the pay range was $122,103 to $160,479 last year, according to an internet job listing), provide them with a whole law clerk each, instead of a quarter of one, and otherwise meet the demands of the American labor market.

I would strongly prefer the latter approach, which is what the government should be asking all users of nonimmigrant workers to do, but suspect that the government will neither follow that advice, nor adopt the H-IJ program.