By Elise Blasingame, University of Georgia; Christina L. Boyd, University of Georgia; Roberto F. Carlos, The University of Texas at Austin; Joseph T. Ornstein, University of Georgia

The following blog post is a summary of the research that co-won the Midwest Political Science Association’s Evan Ringquist Award (presented at the 2023 MPSA Annual Conference in Chicago – pictured below). The Evan Ringquist Award is an award for the best paper on the topic of political institutions.

With federal immigration courts facing substantial case backlogs, in October 2018 the Trump administration imposed a controversial performance quota policy on immigration judges. The new “Performance Plan” mandated high rates of case completions and low appellate reversals per judge-year for immigration judges to maintain satisfactory employment evaluations. The Trump administration’s choice on how to proceed was viewed by many as a drastic intervention designed to generate responsiveness from immigration judges in ways that had similarly proven successful in other difficult-to-control street-level bureaucratic agent situations (Brehm and Gates 1997; Lipsky 1980; Mummolo 2018). Critics claimed the new policy was an attack on immigration judges’ independence (Sacchetti 2017) and an aggressive effort to maximize fast removals (Kim 2018). The political motivations behind the policy seemed clear: to pressure immigration judges to order more removals and to do so as quickly as possible. Typical presidential methods to constrain immigration judges’ behavior are weak, but this policy and its threat of employment sanctions made it more likely to generate political responsiveness among immigration judges.

To assess whether the new policy generated immigration judge responsiveness, our research employs an interrupted time series analysis on hundreds of thousands of immigration decisions from 2012-2020. Our results demonstrate that Trump’s efforts successfully altered immigration judge behavior in the desired direction: drastically higher rates of in absentia removal orders and modest increases in removal orders on case merits (particularly among Democratic-leaning immigration judges). Our findings confirm that while presidents are generally ill-equipped to generate decision making responsiveness among immigration judges, 2018’s quota policy serves as a powerful exception.

The implications of the effectiveness of the Trump policy are vast. For many noncitizens, the stakes of immigration proceedings are exceptionally high – at times even life or death. As we find, the policy’s implementation resulted in noncitizens having, on average, higher odds of being ordered removed from the United States. Our findings likely also confirm perceptions that immigration judging is politicized and lacks needed independence. Finally, we think that what happens next with presidential efforts to guide or even constrain immigration judge behavior will be important to watch. With the Trump administration’s quota policy efforts proving successful in eliciting responsiveness, future administrations may now have a guidebook on how to use immigration courts as a complementary path, along with executive orders, statutory reform, and rhetoric, to achieve immigration-related policy goals.



Brehm, John and Scott Gates. 1997. Working, Shirking, and Sabotage. University of Michigan Press.

Kim, Catherine Y. 2018. “The President’s Immigration Courts.” Emory Law Journal 68:1–48.

Lipsky, Michael. 1980. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service (2010 update). Russell Sage.

Mummolo, Jonathan. 2018. “Modern Police Tactics, Police-Citizen Interactions, and the Prospects for Reform.” Journal of Politics 80:1–15.

Sacchetti, Maria. 2017. “Immigration Judges Say Proposed Quotas from Justice Dept. Threaten Independence.” The Washington Post October 12, 2017.