With around 500 families still separated and hundreds of children still in detention as a result of the Trump administration's cruel "zero tolerance" policy and as the White House moves ahead with a proposal one critic called "Gitmo for children," Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday lectured incoming immigration lawyers to show less "sympathy" for immigrants trapped in President Donald Trump's mass deportation dragnet.
"When we depart from the law and create nebulous legal standards out of a sense of sympathy for the personal circumstances of a respondent in our immigration courts, we do violence to the rule of law and constitutional fabric that bind this great nation," Sessions declared in a speech delivered to 44 new judges in Virginia. "Your job is to apply the law—even in tough cases."
Sessions' comments, which come as the Trump administration continues to face international condemnation over its family separation policies, immediately provoked backlash from the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ)—the union that represents U.S. immigration judges—as well as former judges, who characterized the attorney general's instructions as politically motivated, legally baseless, and morally bankrupt.
"The reality is that it is a political statement which does not articulate a legal concept that judges are required to be aware of and follow," Dana Marks, an NAIJ spokesperson and immigration judge in San Francisco, told Buzzfeed. "It did appear to be a one-sided argument made by a prosecutor."
Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge who is currently an immigration lawyer, accused Sessions of "characterizing decisions he personally disagrees with as being based on sympathy alone, when in fact, those decisions were driven by sympathy but based on solid legal reasoning."
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"We possess brains and hearts, not just one or the other," Chase added.
Sessions' speech was delivered just hours after new United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet denounced the Trump administration's family separation policy—which was devised and implemented by Sessions' Justice Department—as "unconscionable" in her first speech on Monday and ripped the White House for not doing nearly enough to reunite the families it forcibly ripped apart.
As Buzzfeed's Hamed Aleaziz notes, Sessions—who as attorney general oversees the nation's immigration judges—has already taken concrete steps to make an already cruel immigration system even more harmful to immigrants and asylum seekers.
"Sessions already has instituted case quotas, restricted the types of cases for which asylum can be granted, and limited when judges can indefinitely suspend certain cases," Aleaziz notes. "Advocates believe the Trump administration has made these decisions in order to speed up deportations. His comments on sympathy to immigrants appeared intended to bolster a decision he made recently to limit when asylum can be granted out of fear of domestic or gang violence."