As the U.S. immigration courts have been in decline and system-wide backlogs have soared, most top judges on the docket have stuck around or have been shuffled out.
That is the story this week of one of the few who has been nominated to lead the system that applies immigration court jurisprudence to thousands of cases: Linton Joaquin, a San Diego judge appointed in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Joaquin was confirmed by the Senate Wednesday by a voice vote.
One of Joaquin’s most recent cases was the sudden decision Tuesday to overturn the case of a U.S. citizen mother and her four-year-old son after she crossed the border at Tijuana with her son.
In that reversal, Joaquin blamed his decision on an “incorrect interpretation” of the law governing how judges are supposed to decide cases. The decision by Joaquin, under questioning from lawmakers who challenged his thinking, almost seemed forced.
Joaquin has a long paper trail of making harsh and often controversial decisions. His record includes sanctions on illegal immigrants and also two decisions to keep a suspected child sex trafficker behind bars, as well as an investigation for not sending many criminal cases to trial. His track record shows a propensity to seek harsher sentences and get tough on immigration offenders.
But it is important to keep a distinction between how Joaquin has acted as a judge and how his philosophy fits into the overall legal mosaic of how the nation’s immigration courts work under a Justice Department-led system of civil procedures. The system for immigration court matters, known as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has been the most important in building the momentum for reform in recent years.
Joaquin’s handling of child sex trafficking cases is particularly telling about his approach to cases from immigrants and children in immigration courts.
The Obama administration, under pressure from immigrants’ rights groups, took steps to improve the system and make judges and courts more sensitive to children’s needs. The impact of Obama’s efforts has not been widely felt because it is difficult to track the outcomes of the tens of thousands of cases that are heard each year. Even with fewer cases to track, it’s difficult to tell how the number of such cases has changed.
Joaquin’s rulings on cases involving minors often hit the mark. As immigration chief for the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office in the 1990s, he headed a pro-bono legal aid center for migrant children.
But that zeal on the bench has not always made him popular among those whose cases he or his law clerks have reviewed. In 2010, a California State Bar survey said that Joaquin received a “2” rating for his skills as a legal assistant in cases he heard, only a fraction of which were public ones.
Joaquin’s qualifications to lead the nation’s courts stood out to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who selected him to lead the system. Joaquin currently serves as chief magistrate for the San Diego court system and became chief magistrate in 2016. As part of his confirmation, Sessions promised the Senate that he would immediately assume responsibility for day-to-day operations of the San Diego court. Joaquin now serves at the pleasure of Sessions.
The Senate also confirmed two other immigration judges nominated by Sessions to serve in San Diego: Stephen Shaw and Victoria Little. Shaw was confirmed by voice vote and Little’s confirmation was an 84-9 vote.