Federal immigration prosecutors have sought to reactivate thousands of closed deportation cases, following a recent court decision by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that curbed the power of immigration judges to indefinitely suspend cases.
Attorneys with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this fiscal year have asked to restart nearly 8,000 cases that immigration judges had suspended or closed for administrative reasons, according to statistics from the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Those requests totaled about 8,400 in fiscal year 2017, which included four months of the Obama administration. But the pace of the requests has doubled as compared to Obama’s previous two years in office — 3,551 and 4,847 in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, respectively, according to the data first obtained by BuzzFeed News.
An ICE spokeswoman said Friday that the federal agency was seeking to reset cases in which people had been arrested or convicted of a crime, and that it generally reviews cases closed at the discretion of the court to determine whether the suspension was still appropriate.
But the increase in requests comes as the Trump administration is facing criticism from immigration lawyers and a national union of immigration judges, who argue it is undermining judicial independence and using the court system to further a hard-line political agenda.
Through a series of recent court decisions, Sessions has used his legal authority over the immigration system to limit full asylum hearings and block most victims of domestic and gang violence from seeking the form of legal refuge. In May, the attorney general ruled that immigration judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest immigration tribunal in the nation, lack the general authority to close cases for administrative reasons.
“No attorney general has delegated such broad authority, and legal or policy arguments do not justify it,” he wrote. “I therefore hold that immigration judges and the board lack this authority except where a previous regulation or settlement agreement has expressly conferred it.”
Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said at the time that the process by which “immigration court cases were put ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ ” resulted in immigrants who crossed into the country illegally to remain indefinitely without any form of legal status.
The Obama administration had pushed judges and lawyers to close immigration cases deemed a low priority, such as those of people without serious criminal history or with ties to the country, allowing judges to grapple with a backlog that now numbers more than 730,000 cases.
Closing cases administratively also allowed judges to resolve many of cases of thousands of unaccompanied minors who entered the country in 2014, fleeing gang violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Immigration lawyers and experts say judges tend to approve requests from lawyers to restart closed deportation cases, which allows judges to reschedule the cases for hearings and proceedings, essentially reopening them for further review.
Those requests increased the most this fiscal year, from June 2017 to July 2018, according to federal justice department statistics. Immigration lawyers said they expect them to go up further. The American Immigration Lawyers Assn. posted an alleged ICE memo instructing lawyers to move to reset administratively closed cases as resources are available, a total of more than 300,000 cases.
“Now that we have seen the numbers, I think it is extremely scary,” said Sarah Pierce, a senior policy analyst with Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “Many people have been here for years living in relative peace, and suddenly that is now longer true; suddenly they are going to be back before an immigration judge and facing deportation.”
The National Assn. of Immigration Judges, which represents more than 350 federal immigration judges, filed a formal grievance against Sessions this month, saying they want to stop federal law enforcement officials from interfering with their autonomy.
Ashley Tabaddor, president of the association, has said immigration courts — which are run by the Justice Department — have been used for political messaging that is consistent with law enforcement priorities under past administrations.
But “all of these issues have become more pronounced” with the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, she said.