Immigration judges union, a frequent critic, is told to get approval before speaking publicly

SAN DIEGO– A 53-year-old union of immigration judges has been tasked with seeking approval from regulators to speak publicly to anyone outside the Justice Department, potentially silencing a frequent critic of the heavily backlogged immigration courts in an election year .

The National Association of Immigration Judges has spoken regularly in public forums, in interviews with reporters and with congressional staff, often to criticize the way courts are administered. It has advocated greater independence and free legal representation. The National Press Club invited its leaders to a press conference on “the strain of the migrant crisis on the federal immigration justice system.”

The Feb. 15 order requires approval from the Department of Justice “to participate in writing assignments (e.g., articles; blogs) and speaking engagements (e.g., speeches; panel discussions; interviews).” Sheila McNulty, the chief immigration judge, pointed to a 2020 decision by the Federal Labor Relations Authority to strip the union of collective bargaining power and said her previous rights were “currently not valid.”

The order prohibits speaking to Congress, the news media and professional forums without authorization, said Matt Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professionals. & Technical Engineers, an umbrella organization to which the jury members also belong. He said the order contradicted President Joe Biden’s “union-friendly” stance and vowed to fight it.

“It’s outrageous, it’s un-American,” Biggs said. “Why are they trying to silence these judges?”

The Justice Department and the Executive Office for Immigration Review, as the courts are known, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on McNulty’s order, which was addressed to labor leaders Mimi Tsankov and Samuel B. Cole.

Tsankov, the union president and judge in New York, declined comment, saying a recent policy change prevented her from speaking to the media or anyone outside the Justice Department unless she adheres to approved “talking points.” Cole, the union’s executive vice president and a judge in Chicago, said McNulty’s order “prohibits me from talking to you about this” without approval.

News organizations, including The Associated Press, have regularly sought comment from the judges’ union for stories about how the courts operate. Unlike civil or criminal courts, case files are not public and immigrants can close many hearings to the public to protect privacy. The courts are part of the Ministry of Justice.

The exploding backlog of more than three million cases means judges are taking five to seven years to decide cases, a potential boost for people with weak asylum claims who can get work permits while they wait for a decision.

The Trump administration stripped the judges’ union of collective bargaining rights it acquired in 1979, eight years after its founding. The Trump administration clashed with the union, which sought greater independence and opposed a since-rescinded goal for each judge to complete 700 cases a year.

The union hopes to regain bargaining rights from the federal government, said Biggs, whose organization continues to advocate on its behalf. “We have not missed a beat in representing them and that will continue,” he said.

McNulty, a career public official who became chief judge last year and oversees about 600 judges in 68 locations, indicated her order was in response to “recent awareness of your public involvement,” without elaborating.

Tsankov testified at a Senate hearing in October and speaks regularly to reporters. She was scheduled to appear with Cole at a National Press Club news conference in October, which was postponed.

Russell Dye, spokesman for Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, said the Justice Department is “now censuring immigration judges because the Biden administration does not want the American people to know about the gross mismanagement of the U.S. immigration court system . He said the administration “has chosen to try to restrict the freedom of expression of immigration judges.”


Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed.