It did not take U.S. Immigration Judge Nicholas Ford long to stir up controversy in San Francisco.
On Thursday, a coalition of 17 legal services and immigration groups announced the filing of a complaint against Ford with the U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review.
The complaint urges the EOIR to investigate Ford's conduct and take appropriate action to ensure that those who appear in his court are "treated with due process, dignity, and respect."
In unusually aggressive language, the coalition accused Ford of "terrorizing the San Francisco immigrant community," alleging that he dispensed "racist, ableist and hostile treatment of immigrants, attorneys and witnesses."
Omar de la Cruz, a staff attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, is a full-time immigration lawyer and frequently appears before the immigration judges in San Francisco. De la Cruz says that Ford is an outlier in that court for the manner in which he treats witnesses.
The other immigration judges, "for the most part, they conduct themselves in a way that's professional or they conduct themselves in a way that expresses at least some sort of sympathy to the respondents," he said.
"They are at least cognizant of the fact that people in their courtrooms have experienced a lot of trauma."
With Judge Ford, "it was it was not like that at all. He was very hostile from the beginning. He certainly sounded like he prejudged the case. He was both hostile to me and to the client," de la Cruz said. "He just wanted to get through it and had no real awareness or interest in the fact that this is somebody's life in his hands."
Despite a controversial record as a criminal trial judge in Chicago, in May 2019, Ford was appointed by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to serve as an immigration judge in San Francisco. Ford had no prior immigration experience, according to a statement by the coalition.
Before his post in San Francisco, Ford served 16 years as an Illinois circuit court judge assigned to the criminal division of the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago. During his tenure he attracted attention for a number of cases where his rulings were reversed on appeal.
When standing for a retention election in Illinois in 2016, Ford was found not qualified by the Chicago Council of Lawyers, though he was recommended by other bar groups. He retired from the bench in April of 2019.
The coalition alleges that Judge Ford's appointment is "part of the Trump Administration's deliberate policy to discourage and curtail immigration from every angle, particularly against black and brown immigrants."
Rebekah Entralgo, a spokesperson for Freedom for Immigrants, a national organization based in the Bay Area that promotes abolition of immigrant detention, said "the immigration court is really politicized. It's not an independent court."
Immigration courts are located under the U.S. Department of Justice. In a July 2019 letter to Congress urging changes in the immigration court structure, Robert Carlson, the President of the American Bar
Association, pointed out that the "Attorney General is charged with being both lead prosecutor and lead judge in immigration cases."
That is an "inherent conflict of interest," Carlson said, and has contributed to "a severe lack of public confidence in the system's capacity to deliver just and fair decisions in a timely manner."
Entralgo was particularly concerned that Ford's history made him a poor choice to be a judge in a court that regularly hears people describe the torture they have experienced in their home countries.
"Going before an immigration judge is a very terrifying experience," she said. "You basically having to try and recount all the trauma you experience in your country of origin and how to do that before someone who may be deemed hostile to you in the courtroom ... and that can obviously have an impact on your case."
Attempts on Friday to obtain a response to the coalition's allegations from Judge Ford or the EIOC were not immediately successful.