Skip to main content

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein Delivers Opening Remarks at Investiture of 31 Newly Appointed Immigration Judges


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, James, for that kind introduction. I appreciate your devoted service to the Department of Justice.

I also want to thank Deputy Chief Judges Santoro and Cheng, and Assistant Chief Judges Doolittle, Owen, Mart, and Weiss.

I am grateful to Marcia Lee-Sullivan and Karen Manna for helping to plan this event.

Above all, I want to congratulate our 31 new immigration judges for joining the Executive Office for Immigration Review, and welcome the family members and friends who are with us today.

I took my first oath as a Department of Justice employee in 1990. I hope it is as meaningful to you as it is to me. They have sworn me in several more times over the past three decades. But they never swear you out.

The oath obligates you to support and defend the Constitution. Our nation was not united by race, ethnicity, religion, or even national origin. The founders’ goal of bringing peoples of the world together in a single nation is reflected in the motto adopted at the founding of our Republic: e pluribus unum: from the many, one. Our one nation is unified by our shared commitment to the principles of the United States Constitution.  The preamble sets forth, among its primary goals, to “establish Justice.” Justice – or the fair application of the rule of law – is the essence of America.

The right to live and work in America is a tremendous privilege. It is a valuable privilege. It is a privilege that has meaning only if we exercise our right and duty to protect it by setting rules for people who seek to acquire the privilege.

It is right and proper for us to insist that people who desire to join our nation – people who want themselves and their children to join the privileged group who define ourselves as “we, the people” – start by following the rules governing admission and citizenship.

The duties imposed by your oath of office include faithfully enforcing those rules.

America’s immigration laws are generous and welcoming, but they are intended to protect the rights and advance the interests of current and future citizens.

More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt remarked that “[t]he average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation.” Roosevelt did not limit his remarks to birthright citizens. He said, “We must in every way possible encourage the immigrant to rise …. We must in turn insist upon his showing the same standard of fealty to this country and to join with us in raising the level of our common American citizenship.”

Obeying the law when seeking entry to the United States is an essential component of “fealty to this country.”

Estimates suggest that there are more than 44 million people in our country who were not American citizens at birth. That is almost 14 percent of our population, the largest share in more than a century.  America’s foreign-born population exceeds the total population of California, our most populous state, and it is larger than the entire population of Argentina.

Those numbers continue to grow. Every year, we generously extend lawful permanent resident status to more than one million people, and we allot hundreds of thousands of student visas and temporary work visas.

It is no surprise that so many people want to join us. According to the World Bank, nearly half of the world lives on less than $5.50 per day. According to a recent Gallup poll, 150 million people around the world want to immigrate to the United States. We cannot take them all.

For our system to be fair, it must be carried out faithfully and equitably. It must be fair to all who desire to come here — whether they live south of our border or an ocean away.

Immigration judges appointed by the Attorney General and supervised by the Executive Office for Immigration Review are not only judges. First, you are not only judges because you are also employees of the United States Department of Justice. It is a great honor to serve in this Department. In the courtyard just outside the entrance to this Great Hall, high up on the interior wall of the Main Justice building, there is a depiction of the scales of justice and an inscription that reads, “Privilegium Obligatio.” It means that when you accept a privilege, you incur an obligation. In this Department, our duty is in our name. We are the only cabinet agency with a name that articulates a moral value.

Justice is not measured by statistics. Our employees learn from day one that their duty is to gather the facts, seek the truth, apply the law, and respect the policies and principles of the Department of Justice.

The second reason that you are not only judges is that in addition to your adjudicative function – finding facts and applying laws – you are a member of the executive branch. You follow lawful instructions from the Attorney General, and you share a duty to enforce the law.

You take office at a critical time. The number of immigration cases filed each year is rapidly increasing. In February, the Department of Homeland Security apprehended 66,000 aliens who unlawfully entered our country between ports of entry along the southwest border. On average, our colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security encounter about 3,000 aliens every day along the southern border.

Most of them cross the border unlawfully, between points of entry. They chose not to follow the law. Because they do not follow the law, many of them expose themselves and their children to exploitation and abuse. Many pay criminal smugglers because they know that they might not be allowed to enter lawfully. Nonetheless, our legal system protects them.

The massive influx of aliens who arrive in America illegally and invoke due process rights under our law creates a staggering volume of immigration cases that require resolution.

The primary factor driving the increasing backlog is the significant increase in asylum applications. Asylum applications have more than tripled in less than five years.

Our asylum system was established in the aftermath of World War II. America seemed to have limitless space at that time, and the goal was to protect minority groups from persecution by foreign states, the kind of persecution that the world witnessed during World War II and which was prevalent at that time in the purges conducted by our erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.

The law authorizes asylum only for victims who suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or because of their political opinion. 

Other reasons for seeking to immigrate may be rational and even laudable. We certainly understand why foreigners wish to come to America in search of better opportunities for themselves and their children. America is a great nation that does not need walls to keep its citizens from leaving, like the Soviet Union. We build walls only to protect ourselves and enforce our rules.

The duty of our immigration judges is to honestly find the facts and faithfully apply the laws, so that people obtain asylum only if they qualify for it under the statute.

We are taking steps to address the massive influx of cases. We are hiring more judges; we are holding more hearings; and we are completing more cases, more quickly.

Since President Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Justice has hired more immigration judges than in the previous seven years combined. We now employ the largest number of immigration judges in history. There are 48 percent more immigration judges than three years ago, and 71 percent more than five years ago.

And we are finding innovative ways to become more efficient. For example, the Department has had great success using video teleconference technology, which enables judges to share the case burden with one another across the country. 

We will look for other ways to become more efficient and more effective. But ultimately we are depending upon you, both to perform your duties expeditiously, and to let us know when you identify opportunities for improvement.

One of my favorite management parables is about a child who watches her mother prepare a roast beef.  The mother cuts the ends off the roast before she puts it in the oven.  The child asks why. The mother says that she learned it from her mother. So the child asks her grandmother. The grandmother explains, “When your mother was a child, I cut the ends off because my pan was too small to fit the whole roast beef.”

The moral is that the solutions of the past are not necessarily the right solutions today.  Circumstances change.  Sometimes we need to reconsider assumptions and realign our practices to achieve our goals.  The movie “Moneyball,” based on a book by Michael Lewis, summarizes the lesson in three words borrowed from Charles Darwin: “Adapt or die.” Some of the best ideas to enhance efficiency come from relatively new employees who are not accustomed to existing bureaucratic rules. If you think you know a better way to accomplish our mission, please speak up and let us know.

Our challenges are daunting.  But you can be part of the solution.

Whether the immigration backlog continues to grow depends in large part on how immigration judges discharge their duties.

We chose you because of your qualifications, your legal skills, and your personal integrity. We believe that you are ready for this challenge.

Thank you for your willingness to serve, and welcome to the Department of Justice.

Updated March 15, 2019