Since September 2017, immigration judges and all other employees at the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review have been required to adhere to an onerous pre-approval process whenever they desire or are invited to speak publicly on any issue, immigration-related or not. I learned of the policy through a Freedom of Information Act request my colleagues made to the department, as part of an investigation I’ve been conducting on the intersection of free speech and U.S. border enforcement.
It is not uncommon for government agencies to set rules on employee conduct and outside activities. But the perspective of immigration judges is particularly valuable to the public, especially one grappling with complicated questions about America’s immigration laws. In his 2019 year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts commended American judges who, “without fanfare or acclaim,” take time to reach out to their communities in all sorts of public-education initiatives. As Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told Congress in 2018, immigration judges “help the community better understand our immigration courts and their function in the community, helping to demystify the system and bring transparency about our operations to the public.”
Although immigration judges are employees of the executive branch, they’re judges in the truest sense of the term, presiding over cases that have enormous consequences for asylum seekers or people facing removal from the U.S. The Trump administration appears determined to remove from the public’s view the very people the chief justice and Tabaddor believe play an essential role in promoting public confidence in the administration of justice. The Justice Department should heed their call—rescind its misguided policy and let judges speak.
Cristian Farias was writer-in-residence at the Knight Institute in 2019-2020.