New IJs in Memphis

Even though the non-detained immigration courts remain closed to hearings and other in-person services at this time, that does not mean the immigration courts are not making moves. For those following the Memphis Immigration Court in particular, it is common knowledge that a pair of retirements last year had been causing a considerable amount of confusion and delay well before COVID-19.

The retirements were not totally unexpected as the immigration courts in general have struggled to retain judges under this administration. Regardless, chaos and confusion are the natural consequences when a court that has been operating for several years with 4 immigration judges is suddenly reduced down to two.

Recently, the Department of Justice has moved to re-staff and re-structure the Memphis court. The first change came shortly into the pandemic when Immigration Judge Renae M. Hansell was promoted to the position of Assistant Chief Immigration Judge (“ACIJ”) for the Memphis court. It remains unclear at this point whether Judge Hansell will continue to oversee hearings. In several immigration courts, ACIJs do not traditionally adjudicate cases. Personally, I have seen her removed from some of my cases recently, but until the court reopens or there is an announcement, we will not know for sure.

Her promotion created a problem as well. With two immigration judges retired and a third promoted to a position that would take time away from adjudicating cases, the court was effectively left with one full-time judge – Immigration Judge Rebecca L. Holt.

This confusion was mostly clarified on July 17, 2020 when the DOJ announced the swearing in of 46 new immigration judges, including two more judges for the Memphis court: Luis A. Maldonado and David A. Russo. We will not meet these judges until after the pandemic, but here’s what we know from the DOJannouncement:

Luis A. Maldonado: Judge Maldonado graduated with his law degree from the University of Florida School of Law in 2004. He was previously an attorney for the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services in Atlanta and a deputy chief counsel for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) in Orlando. He also has experience representing immigrants as an immigration staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association in Orlando. Judge Maldonado is licensed in Florida.

David A. Russo: Judge Russo is no stranger to the South, having graduated from Tulane University and Louisiana State University School of Law. He is a veteran of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security working as a deployable agent for FEMA throughout the United States from 2017 to 2020. A veteran, Judge Russo worked as a deputy state judge advocate for the Georgia National Guard in Atlanta and from 2000 to 2008 as a judge advocate for the U.S. Army in Georgia, Iraq, Germany, and Kuwait. He has private experience as well, serving as a partner with Herman & Russo P.C. in Woodstock, GA from 2008 to 2011. Judge Russo is licensed in Georgia.

William Barr announced 46 new immigration judges this month.

This new class of 46 immigration judges was heavily criticized by advocacy groups when it was released. The vast majority of new immigration attorneys come from ICE or the judge advocate corps. One was the research director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (“FAIR”), an organization designated as a hate group with white supremacist roots by the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”). Regardless of whether the SPLC is correct in their assessment (they are), FAIR is certainly anti-immigrant.

As for the new Memphis judges, time will tell how they fit the bench. Adding judges should help with the court’s backlog, but we will not get an idea for their style and quirks until the Memphis court reopens. As of today, that will not be until at least August 17th, but with the pandemic raging throughout the mid-South, that date is likely to be pushed back.


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