Stress and burnout found among nation's immigration judges

By Kirsten Michener

Stuart L. Lustig, MD, MPH

A new study finds that many immigration judges adjudicating cases of asylum seekers are suffering from significant symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and job burnout, which, according to the researchers, may shape their judicial decision-making processes.

The findings appear in “Inside the Judges’ Chambers:  Narrative Responses from the National Association of Immigration Judges Stress and Burnout Survey” which will be published June 26, 2009 as part of the fall 2008 (cq) edition of the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal.  The study is available online at

The study is the first to employ traditional psychological testing instruments to measure stress levels in immigration judges.  The researchers found, through a quantitative data analysis of the 96 immigration judges who responded to a survey, that the judges’ burnout levels were higher than those suffered by hospital physicians and prison wardens.

The study is unique, the researchers said, because its findings include direct quotes from the judges themselves.  Immigration judges are prohibited from speaking with outsiders about their work without Department of Justice permission, so their candid comments on their working conditions have not been captured before.  The survey subjects’ comments provide graphic and specific illustrations of the intense level of stress and burnout under which they are working, the authors said.

The study notes that mental health clinicians have been interested in the occupational effects among those who work with trauma victims, such as immigration judges, since some victims, including asylum seekers, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  The researchers note that the occupational hazards of the immigration judges may include “compassion fatigue” and “secondary traumatic stress” (STS).  Sufferers of STS may manifest physical symptoms as significant and frequent as victims of trauma themselves do.

“Symptoms of trauma are specific and identifiable,” said the study’s lead author Stuart Lustig, MD, MPH, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF.  “People who experience vicarious trauma may manifest the same symptoms as a sufferer of PTSD.”  These include “intrusion,” experiencing the original trauma through apparent flashbacks and nightmares; “avoidance,” shunning activities, places, or people that remind them of the trauma; and “arousal,” physiological symptoms such as being overly vigilant, jumpy or easily startled—or just the opposite, becoming numb and shutting down, he said.

The survey given to the immigration judges included psychological testing tools called the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS) and the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI).  The survey respondents indicated that they experienced significant symptoms of secondary traumatic stress on the STSS, scoring means of 2.0, 2.3, and 2.4 out of 5 on subscales for intrusion, avoidance, and arousal symptoms respectively.  Female judges were overall more symptomatic than their male counterparts, with women scoring 2.50 on all scales combined, compared to a male mean of 1.84.  Women were also more symptomatic than men on each of the three subscales.

“I am concerned that the stress and trauma in judges may make it hard for them to recognize trauma in the refugees whose cases come before them in the courtroom,” said Lustig.  Lustig said that this can affect their future caseloads in one of two ways: they may become particularly lenient and grant asylum at a higher rate than they would otherwise, or they may just shut down and become desensitized to those applicants whose stories of persecution are genuine.

“Judges under this much stress may suffer from ‘compassion fatigue,’ in which they start to lose empathy for asylum applicants,” said study co-author Dana Leigh Marks, JD, President of the National Association of Immigration Judges.  “This is the first time that the operations of the immigration courts have been evaluated by trained professionals who are qualified to compare the impact of judges’ working conditions with those of others in stressful jobs, like prison wardens and busy hospital doctors,” Marks said.

The survey gave respondents the opportunity to provide narrative responses on their working conditions.  The narratives revealed that, in addition to the secondary traumatic stress the judges are suffering from the nature of the asylum seekers’ stories, the judges’ working conditions are contributing to high levels of job burnout.

“While we were well aware of the fact that our courts are extremely overburdened, we were still surprised by the extremely high levels of burnout and work related stress that were reported,” said Marks.  “The narratives provide a dramatic depiction of the personal angst these conditions cause those working in this unique court setting,” she added.

Judges’ comments on their working conditions fell into five general themes: workload/time demands, infrastructure problems, challenges to esteem, psychological and health issues, and fraud.

The paper includes recommendations for additional resources for the nation’s immigration courts, including improving education and training for judges; adding adequate support staff and tools, including sufficient infrastructure and sufficient numbers of law clerks, bailiffs, and interpreters; and additional administrative time for judges to research country conditions, for example, on those places where they are being asked to judge the veracity of applicants’ claims of persecution. Additionally, the paper recommends that the Department of Justice establish a network of trained group facilitators to provide immigration judges with the opportunity to connect with each other in a group setting, providing mutual support and the perspectives of their peers who are also dealing with daily exposure to abject human misery and cruelty.

“The findings highlight the importance of providing adequate resources to the system which has the solemn responsibility of administering our asylum laws fairly and expeditiously,” said Marks.  “We hope these findings will be used to assure that the immigration court system is improved so that the vulnerable populations we serve, including asylum seekers, juveniles, detainees, and mentally ill respondents, can benefit from a less stressful courtroom experience,” she concluded.

Co-authors of the study were Niranjan Karnik, MD, PhD; Kevin Delucchi, PhD; Lakshika Tennakoon, MSc, of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry; Brent Kaul, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers; and Hon. Denise Slavin, JD, National Association of Immigration Judges.

The study was funded by grants from the UCSF Academic Senate and the Research Evaluation and Allocation Committee.

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