Philadelphia immigration Judge Charles Honeyman had intended to work a few more years after turning 70, but grew disappointed with what he saw as Trump administration pressures on the courts.

Among his concerns: unrealistic docket demands and quotas to quickly clear cases, a lack of concern for meaningful due process, and the continuing transformation of the immigration appeals bureau into “a Politburo-like rubber stamp.”

“I love what I did,” Honeyman said in an interview, “but at some point I was just not comfortable.”

He retired in January, planning to devote his time to writing, speaking and teaching. But now he’s heading back into the fray, on the other side of the bench, joining the immigration law firm of Solow, Isbell & Palladino LLC, which has offices in Philadelphia, Camden, and Chadds Ford.

“I got to know the partners [and] I was really impressed with the quality of their advocacy, and the growing reputation of the firm,” Honeyman said. “It gives me a thrill to be able to contribute.”

He’ll be “of counsel,” providing strategic litigation advice to help clients, especially those facing deportation. He’ll also work with foreign nationals seeking other forms of relief, consult with lawyers, speak at events, and generally help grow the firm.

“Judge Honeyman is one of the most highly respected and learned immigration judges in the nation,” said law-firm partner Ricky Palladino. “We are honored to work alongside Judge Honeyman in a collaborative pursuit of excellence in immigration law and advocacy.”

Immigration Court is not like other courts. It’s part of the executive branch, not the judicial, governed at the top by the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer, the U.S. attorney general, a political appointee who can declare that judges must follow his decisions.

That causes the courts to be “vulnerable to the political whims of the executive,” according to the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based advocacy group.

Migrant families line up for a photo before their interviews with U.S. immigration officials, at a migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, in 2019.
Fernando Llano / AP
Migrant families line up for a photo before their interviews with U.S. immigration officials, at a migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, in 2019.

The Justice Department says it’s the law, and it expects immigration judges, including Honeyman, to follow it.

“Immigration judges who disregard the laws passed by Congress and interpretations of those laws by the attorney general simply because they dislike them undermine the integrity of the proceedings over which they preside,” a department spokesperson said. “We wish him well with his retirement.”

The Justice Department told judges in 2018 that they must clear at least 700 cases a year, and have less than 15% of their decisions overturned, to receive a satisfactory rating on their job reviews. That came as the backlog of immigration removal cases surged, surpassing one million in 2019, a figure that’s quadrupled during the last decade, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Last month, the head of the judges’ union — which the Trump administration seeks to de-certify — said it was urgent for the courts to become independent from the Justice Department.

“America needs an immigration court that is free from improper influence,” union president and Judge Ashley Tabbador told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.

Philadelphia became a battleground over judicial independence in 2018, when the Justice Department removed and replaced a judge who had delayed the deportation of a Guatemalan immigrant. The judges’ union said the removal of Judge Steven Morley from the case subverted the judicial process in order to obtain a particular outcome.

Honeyman has said he wants future administrations, and Congress, to consider immigration judges as true judges, with real independence.

“The only way to do that,” he told NPR, “is to create an independent court where the judge makes a decision and the judge isn’t afraid of how many cases he has to complete for the year or whether some political actor is going to be looking over his shoulder and say, ‘I don’t agree with that decision; we’re going to find a way to put pressure on you.’”

Honeyman grew up in Havertown, graduated in 1967 from public Haverford High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Roanoke College, and then two master’s degrees — in political science from Penn State and in public policy from the University of Michigan. He received his law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1981.

He practiced immigration law in Baltimore and in Philadelphia, and in 1995 was appointed an immigration judge, serving in New York. In 2001, he was assigned to the Philadelphia Immigration Court.

Among immigration judges’ most crucial decisions are whether to grant asylum, which confers the ability to legally stay in the United States, and which can mean life or death. The Trump administration contends that many claims are fraudulent, and asylum seekers are held in detention or sent to dangerous Mexican cities to await hearings.

From fiscal 2014 through 2019, Honeyman decided 411 asylum claims on the merits, granting 266 and denying 145, according to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That means he granted 64.7% and denied 35.3%.

Philadelphia judges overall denied 51.1%. Nationally, immigration judges denied 63.1%, according to TRAC.

Honeyman said he decided cases by applying the law to the facts.

“I wanted to treat each case as an equal playing field,” he said. “I knew the importance of really understanding the impact that I would have on individuals, families, businesses, for years and generations to come. In a thousand years, somebody could trace back the lineage of their family’s history to a decision I made in my court.”

He’s looking forward to speaking more freely about immigration, and accepting engagements at churches, synagogues, and conferences. On Friday, he was in University City to address the Continuing Legal Education Conference of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“I come from Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe,” Honeyman said. “Just for a quirk of good fortune or good luck, a decision one way or the other, I might have been that person that didn’t make it out of there.”