Judging Philosophy

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice March/April 2024
A conversation with a former immigration judge

David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, sat down to speak with Rebecca Jamil, a current immigration lawyer and former immigration judge at the San Francisco Immigration Court, about working on all sides of the immigration legal process.

David Wilkins: You have had a really interesting career that has spanned immigration—from the Department of Homeland Security to working as a judge. I want to start at the beginning: What drew you to this field and why?

Rebecca Jamil: That makes it sound like I have more of a planned career than most, but I graduated from Stanford in 1998, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and so I ended up with one of those jobs you have out of college: I ended up as a paralegal at a business immigration firm. I’d always had my eye on immigration. What attracts me to immigration is the intersection of people’s stories with an ever-changing legal framework. And now years and years later, I’ve ended up with this deep field of experience.

Wilkins: But eventually that leads you to law school, which then leads you to the Ninth Circuit, and then you took a job with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). What led to that transition, and what was that job like as a lawyer working in that agency?

Jamil: I got an internship out of law school at the Ninth Circuit as a staff attorney intern, which means you’re writing the very brief dispositions of cases for Ninth Circuit panels and you present before judges, which, as a law student, is terrifying. Then I got hired there. At the time you could only stay five years, so around year four everyone starts talking to other former staff attorneys trying to figure out what’s next. I had both my kids while I was at the Ninth Circuit, and I was a new mom, but I did want to get trial experience, and at that point I was focusing exclusively on immigration, so I had a pretty deep knowledge of asylum law, motions practice, etc., but I’d never practiced it.

If you’re in court constantly all day, you have to decide: What is my philosophy as a lawyer?

Rebecca Jamil, former immigration judge, San Francisco Immigration Court

I’d just reviewed immigration cases from on top, as well as proposed resolutions to panels of experienced judges. San Francisco’s immigration courts and the ICE Office of Chief Counsel were seen as really good places to sharpen your legal skills while also offering attorneys a lot of independence. When I was interviewed, I don’t think I grasped the volume of cases. It’s so much court all the time, and so you really have to know your stuff. I was fortunate in that I had two supervisors who wanted the people under them to be full-fledged attorneys and not seek permission on every single case about what to do. As a new lawyer, it was nice to have all these challenges both personally, legally, and professionally every single day. I think it’s a great job, but it truly does depend on the political environment, which is a shame. Enforcement has been important politically, at least my entire time working in immigration law from ICE to the courts to my current role representing individuals in removal proceedings.

Wilkins: I want to emphasize something I’m hearing, which I think is really important for students to hear, for example, that yes, there’s the big political environment—which you cannot escape—but then a lot of the day-to-day job is one in which, as a lawyer, you have a fair amount of independence and discretion as to how you handle those cases. Am I getting that part right?

Jamil: That’s right. Definitely the day-to-day is still the same. The case law is the case law about gang threats and domestic violence. If you’re in court constantly all day, you have to decide: What is my philosophy as a lawyer? Am I going to sit there with an asylum applicant and cross-examine them on every single thing and obsess over one little discrepancy? Or am I going say, “Most of what I’ve heard sounded similar enough to what’s in the application.” Am I going to ask the questions I’m actually interested in? Then, once I’ve got answers for those, I’m going to leave it up to the judge—I’m not going to prolong this if the resolution is pretty clear.

Wilkins: And at some point, you apply to be an immigration judge yourself. Can you talk about that process and transition? Why did you want to be a judge? And what was it like on the other side?

Jamil: Actually, the process to become an immigration judge took quite a while because there were all sorts of budgetary issues. ICE attorneys typically can proceed faster because they already have a security clearance of some sort. I had my first interview after a year, and it was unlike anything I had ever been through, with a panel quizzing you on what you would do or how you would assess different scenarios. There’s no answer that’s right or wrong. Right before my 40th birthday, I got called and I flew to DC on very little notice, met the director, and we really clicked. Then I got the call that I got the judgeship and I was overjoyed. Even after everything that happened and I’m no longer a judge, it was one of those career points where I thought, “Wow, I guess I am kind of good at this. I guess I can do this. Other people think so too.”

Wilkins: Why did you want to become a judge? That is, what was the appeal of being a judge in this process?

Are you going to be a judge who picks apart every single tiny word in someone’s testimony and denies everything on credibility?

Rebecca Jamil

Jamil: I think part of it was watching the judges that I appeared before, I really admired how they all did things just slightly differently. A judge would make a decision, maybe grant a case that I didn’t think was really grantable but I wasn’t going to appeal, and I started to form opinions on those cases and think, “I probably would’ve done this slightly different.” It’s pretty well known that judges will often comment to attorneys on both sides that they think they would make a good judge, and that happened to me with a number of judges. I didn’t want to be at ICE forever, but I wanted to stay in government. I thought it was really valuable. My dad was big into public service, and so I felt like this is the next thing I could do that would be a service to the public and also personally fulfilling.

Wilkins: How did you adjust to this new role? And how did you think about your own experience as a lawyer now that you’re a judge?

Jamil: Immigration judges undergo a lot of training because everyone starts in different places. A fair amount of ICE attorneys who become judges are a little bit more enforcement minded. But as with being an attorney, you have to decide on your philosophy. Are you going to be a judge who picks apart every single tiny word in someone’s testimony and denies everything on credibility? That was not satisfying to me. I’m not a lie detector. I can’t tell when my kids lie to me. But I can tell when someone hasn’t presented enough evidence. I can tell if someone hasn’t told me their whole story.

As a judge, I decided my philosophy was: “I believe what people are telling me unless I have a reason not to. I believe what people are telling me because they’ve given me a declaration and they’re testifying consistently.” That was advice I got from a number of mentors. It’s a little bit freeing because then you can really just put it on a scale and see where it ends up. Did they meet their burden of establishing that they’re a refugee? As an ICE attorney, I generally believed people because that is who I am. But then moving into the judge role was both really difficult and also felt very natural. In San Francisco, most people in the nondetained docket are represented. They either get pro bono representation or they hire a lawyer, and that makes things way better for the judge generally because you’ve got a brief, the client is prepared to testify, and they understand what the process is. That makes San Francisco judging different from some other courts, where very few people have that advantage.

A book sits open on a table in a library with a gavel laying across it.

Learning to Judge

Wilkins: Then of course the policies shift under the Trump administration. Could you talk about how that impacted your ability to do your job? 

Jamil: From everyone I talked to, it was the most jarring change of administrations for immigration in our day-to-day because it had become—and now it is even worse—but it had become this massive, center stage political issue. Suddenly the president’s commenting on immigration courts, which previously felt like a really niche area the public might not have known about. I thought I was still going to be able to do my job because people were coming in, I would hear their stories, and I would apply the law. Some administrations are more guidance heavy than others, but really it doesn’t affect the day-to-day of a judge that much except for prioritizing certain cases for processing.

I resigned the day after the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, issued the decisions in Matter of A-B- [which restricted the court’s ability to issue asylum on domestic violence cases].

Rebecca Jamil

But the first thing that happened that sort of cracked my mind open to how different it had become was that family separation started. My docket was unaccompanied kids or moms and kids and occasionally a full family unit, but 90 percent of my cases were domestic violence cases. Family separation was a struggle for me—to think that I could continue to work in a Department of Justice where the philosophy included ripping moms away from their kids to deter other people from coming? That was a pretty clear human rights violation.

I started asking, “Is this something I can continue to do?” At first, there was no guidance about how to deal with cases. I never personally saw a family separation case. A lot of people remained detained. I was a nondetained judge and I was in San Francisco, so the only time I’ve seen a family separation case was after I left DOJ in private practice. But then I resigned the day after the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, issued the decisions in Matter of A-B- [which restricted the court’s ability to issue asylum on domestic violence cases]. Matter of L-E-A- [which said that a family was not a particular social group] was shortly after. I knew those were political decisions designed to deter people from getting refugee status, and it was pretty clear that that was going to continue. I did not feel like I could do my job. I stayed for a month so that we could finish up cases and I wrapped stuff up, and then I had no idea what I was going to do next.

Wilkins: You’d also been in government pretty much your entire career after graduating from law school. What did you decide to do, and how did you make that decision?

Jamil: I spent a summer with my kids, who were little. Then when the kids went back to school, within a week I was pondering what I wanted to do. I don’t speak Spanish, and that’s a real obstacle if you want to work with clients, but I also knew that I was sick of going to court all the time. It was seven and a half years of going to court almost every day that I was at work.

I wanted to stick to what I knew. I knew I loved writing, and I knew I didn’t want to do business immigration. An attorney that I knew well while I was at ICE reached out to me about how they were restructuring their practice and it was a perfect fit. I now work for Argumedo Garzon Law Group. We do everything from adjustment of status, family-based cases, U visas, lots of unaccompanied kids’ asylum applications, but what I focus on is removal proceedings. I do not go to court. I write appeals. I write prehearing statements. I do substantive motion work. I love thinking through the case strategy. Our client base is generally people from Latin America. Everyone at our firm except for me is bilingual.

The first thing I recommend, if people feel like they’re interested in immigration in law school, is: do your clinic.

Rebecca Jamil

It’s satisfying and personally very fulfilling. And my previous experience has been very transferable because I look at a case from the point of view of what I would think as a judge, but also I can pick those holes from the point of view of an ICE attorney. I think, “Oh, this guy’s declaration says XYZ. ICE is going to be right on that and wonder. He needs to be prepared to testify on that.”

Every job has sort of led to the next, and it has not necessarily been planned. My résumé makes it look like I had a grand plan, but I definitely didn’t, which I think is a good lesson for people who are starting their careers.

Wilkins: What advice would you have about someone who’s interested in immigration law and thinking they might want to have a career in the field?

Jamil: The first thing I recommend, if people feel like they’re interested in immigration in law school, is: do your clinic. I went to the University of Washington really because of their immigration clinic and because it worked with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which is a great organization doing awesome work. Doing a clinic really offers you a full view of how the immigration court system is this weird labyrinthine and not necessarily logical place. The second thing I think people can do is ask for informational interviews with judges, with staff attorneys, with whatever the place you want to go to is, and intern.

I spent most of my last year of law school actually living in San Francisco doing my internship at the Ninth Circuit. That was challenging personally because my husband was in Seattle, but it definitely set the stage for me really feeling confident that I have these writing skills that are unusually well practiced for someone early in my career. Even at ICE, people would ask me to review and advise them on briefs before submission. I always wanted to do it because I love writing. I think those are the things I would say. When people ask me for informational interviews, I’m always happy to do it, and mentoring people is really rewarding. And go for it— apply for things you think you won’t get. When I got the staff attorney internship, no one at UW Law had done it before and I thought, “Hey, this is cool. Let’s see where it leads.” That led logically to every next step.

Wilkins: Rebecca, I’m not at all surprised that you have ended up with something that’s incredibly fulfilling for you based on this very interesting journey, and I have no doubt that it’ll be really interesting for our readers. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Rebecca Jamil is an attorney with the Argumedo Garzon Law Group and a former immigration judge at the San Francisco Immigration Court

David B. Wilkins is the faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession.