He is a little known South Florida judge who toils in near obscurity, yet Rex J. Ford has the power to radically alter lives and separate or reunite families.
Ford hears immigration cases fulltime at the Broward Transitional Center, a detention facility in Deerfield Beach. On most days, he is the only judge there.
Over the past several years, a research arm of Syracuse University consistently has rated him among the toughest 10 immigration judges in the country, based on his denial rate of asylum claims.
"I follow the law," Ford told the Sun Sentinel.
Ford, of Palm Beach, is one of more than 200 immigration judges nationwide working for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Judges earn up to $165,300 a year and decide whether foreigners accused of violating immigration laws should be deported or allowed to remain in the United States.
At the detention center, Ford regularly handles dozens of initial removal proceedings a day, quizzing detainees — and their attorneys if they have them — about whether they want to contest the deportation and deciding whether the individual can be released on bond.
In 96 percent of the 2,057 proceedings Ford completed in fiscal 2011, he ordered the person removed from the country, according to figures provided by the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
"I follow the book and I don't get reversed," he told the Sun Sentinel.
Javed Rahman, an attorney with the Colombian American Service Association, said Ford is an experienced judge who insists that attorneys meet the legal burdens imposed on them to win their cases.
"I believe he is a fair judge," Rahman said.
But some attorneys who appear before Ford privately grouse that he is stricter or more demanding than other judges. They complain that he too often denies bond for detainees, keeping them locked up.
In March 2011, in testimony before a congressional subcommittee investigating immigration detention standards, Ford was criticized by Americans for Immigrant Justice, a Miami-based group, for approving what it said was a record 10,000 stipulated orders for deportation in the prior three years.
"How many detainees were coerced into signing those orders by Customs and Borders Patrol or other enforcement officials?" Cheryl Little, AIJ's executive director, asked lawmakers.
A registered Republican, Ford garnered attention in 2008 with the release of a U.S. Justice Department report that named him as playing a role in recommending the appointment of immigration judges based on their political leanings. Ford denied to investigators that he considered GOP affiliations in advocating specific job candidates.
Several top officials in the Attorney General's Office resigned as a result of the inquiry and the process for appointing immigration judges was reformed to remove political considerations.
Ford declined comment on the controversy, telling the Sun Sentinel: "I just come to work every day and I do my job."