Politics & Policy

Immigration Judge Sues Justice Department for Anti-Iranian Discrimination

Iranian-American judge believes Iranians are not white; claims Holder DOJ disciplined her for being a proud Persian.

An immigration judge in California claims the Justice Department disciplined her because of her heritage and an appearance she made at the White House. Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor, a judge for the U.S. Immigration Court in Los Angeles, is suing the DoJ to challenge its order that she indefinitely recuse herself from hearing cases involving Iranian nationals.

In her complaint, Tabaddor says that in the summer of 2012 she was invited to an event titled, “Roundtable with Iranian-American Community Leaders,” held by the White House Office of Public Engagement. While the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EIOR) permitted her one day of leave to attend the event, EOIR recommended she subsequently be recused from all cases, and cease to be assigned any cases, involving Iranian nationals, according to the complaint. When she protested the request, the complaint says, the Justice Department made it an order.

“This truly is unprecedented and extraordinary,” says Ali Mojdehi, Tabaddor’s lawyer. “Mind you this judge was a former prosecutor and you know she went on the immigration bench in ’05 and she has an impeccable record.” Tabaddor, who was appointed as an immigration judge in November 2005 by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, declined to comment citing DOJ policy prohibiting her from speaking to the press.

The Los Angeles immigration court where Tabaddor practices has a backlog of 309 cases involving Iranian nationals, according to data compiled as of June 30, 2014, by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says she does not know if any of the backlog resulted because of the DOJ order, but says she knows Tabaddor has had cases involving Iranian nationals removed from her docket and had cases assigned elsewhere.

Mojdehi says Tabaddor, who was born in Tehran and immigrated to the United States at the age of 10, made the decision to move forward with a lawsuit after an Equal Employment Opportunity investigation sided with DOJ. He says he challenges the reasoning of the investigation and points to an affidavit signed by JuanCarlos M. Hunt, EOIR’s director of EEO and Diversity Programs. In it, Hunt said the matter was not brought to his attention until after Tabaddor filed the complaint, and had he known sooner he would have changed the order because he viewed it as discriminatory regardless of the order’s intent.   

An EOIR spokesperson tells National Review Online the office will not comment on pending litigation. Jeffrey Rosenblum, former chief counsel of EOIR’s Employee/Labor Relations Unit and now EOIR’s general counsel, gave Tabaddor the order to recuse herself in an email, according to the complaint. The complaint says Rosenblum’s email said in part, “[Tabaddor] should disqualify [herself] from cases involving respondents from Iran to avoid any appearance problems.” He went on to explain that the general counsel’s office was not suggesting that Tabaddor had an actual bias.

Tabaddor’s outspoken comments regarding how she identifies herself may provide greater insight about her motivation. Tabaddor’s complaint identifies her race as “Near East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Persian,” but the U.S. Census Bureau says a person having origins in the original people of the Middle East should legally be identified as “white.” In a 2010 article titled, “Race Matters: Are Middle Easterners Really White?” Tabaddor, who is also an adjunct law professor at UCLA, complained that the television show Beverly Hills 90210 did not have an Iranian-American character despite being set in an area with a large and prominent Iranian-Americans population.

“Being legally ‘White,’ therefore, has created an additional obstacle for the Middle Eastern community in trying to achieve equality in the United States,” Tabaddor wrote. “By accepting ‘White’ as an identity, the community has been placated into silence, believing that it is part of the majority voice, leaving it disarmed in times when its members need protection the most. The ‘whiteness’ has essentially whitewashed the identity of the Middle-Eastern community to the detriment of its social and political voice in America.”

Hundreds of thousands of people of Iranian descent reportedly live in Southern California. The large concentration of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles County has led to the nickname “Tehrangeles,” and the City of L.A. has officially dubbed a Westwood location “Persian Square.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose department is charged with the alleged discrimination, has spoken at great length about how his life experiences as a black man influence his view of justice. But he has not so far commented on what, if any, insights he might have, as a non-white person, into the unique Iranian-American experience.

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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