Justice Department Eyes More Power for Immigration Judges

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Justice Department is reportedly looking at making changes to the authority of appellate immigration judges that would give them power to issue decisions binding on the entire immigration system.

In this May 14, 2013, file photo, the Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington is shown early in the morning. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

According to a report Friday by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Trump administration plans to revive a George W. Bush-era rule that would allow small panels of judges on the Board of Immigration Appeals to issue decisions that set precedent for the entire immigration court system. It would also let judges on the appeals board uphold the decisions of judges below without explanation.

The Chronicle reports the proposal is currently being reviewed by the White House and has yet to be made final. 

Neither the Justice Department nor the Executive Office of Immigration Review immediately responded to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Unlike other types of judges, immigration judges operate under the Department of Justice, with the attorney general making hires and overseeing their work. The Board of Immigration Appeals is the appellate body of the immigration court system and is made up of 21 people who handle appeals from the more than 400 mainline immigration judges.

Six of the 21 members of the panel are currently serving temporarily.

The backlog in the immigration courts system is notorious and the subject of much complaint from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. As of the end of last year, there were more than 820,000 pending cases in the system, according to the Executive Office of Immigration Review, and the number has been on a steady rise for the past decade.

Jeremy McKinney, an immigration attorney in North Carolina, said the proposal allowing the appeals board to uphold decisions without explanation could actually hamper the administration’s goal of speeding up the processing of immigration cases.

He said when the rule was first in place, it led to more reversals in federal appellate courts, which hear appeals of Board of Immigration Appeals decisions.

“It resulted in the obvious, which was less thought-out opinions and more reversals at the circuit court,” McKinney said in an interview.

McKinney, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the administration would be better off removing immigration judges out from under the Justice Department. That proposal has become a popular call among immigration advocates and attorneys.

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