WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered immigration courts to stop using an administrative tool to close cases despite the immigration system’s massive backlog.
In an interim decision announced Thursday, Sessions said immigration courts “do not have the general authority” to indefinitely suspended immigration proceedings through the use of the administrative closure process.
Instead Sessions said these cases should be re-calendared and heard later.
“In recent years, immigration judges and the Board have increasingly ordered administrative closure to remove a large number of cases from their dockets,” Sessions wrote. “Although described as a temporary suspension, administrative closure is effectively permanent in most instances.”
Sessions said numbers from the Executive Office for Immigration Review show less than a third of cases closed in this way get recalendared. The total number of cases closed in this way from 1980 to 2011 was about 283,000, but from 2011 to 2017, according to numbers provided by the agency, the number was over 215,000.
“Congress has never authorized administrative closures in a statute, and Department of Justice regulations only permit administrative closure in specific categories of cases,” Sessions wrote, further condemning the practice. “The Attorney General has never delegated the general authority, and I decline to do so now.”
But the administrative closure system has been called a necessity by legal advocates.
American Bar Association President Hilarie Bass spoke in favor of the tool when Congress held a hearing to review the judicial immigration system last month.
In a statement released with an amicus brief supporting the tool, she said the massive backlog that remains before the courts, 667,000 matters pending as of December 2017, can be chipped away at using administrative closure and that the US Supreme Court has found immigration judges have the “power to defer adjudication of a case as inherent in the authority to decide cases.”
“Withdrawing the authority from (immigration judges) and the Board to administratively close proceedings would make it considerably more difficult for those individuals to obtain relief,” Bass said. “In the absence of administrative closure, (judges) confronted with such cases will either issue continuance after continuance… or will issue final orders of removal, pretermitting those proceedings.”
“Neither course is appropriate or desirable in an efficient and balanced adjudicative system,” she said.
On Friday she told Courthouse News “We are disappointed in the decision. It intrudes on the independence of immigration judges by taking away their ability to administratively close cases – essentially, pause proceedings for a variety of reasons – when they deem it appropriate. This is a perfect example of why immigration courts should not be operated by the Justice Department, but should be separate and independent from the executive branch.”
But for groups who wish to see a reduction in immigration, and stricter immigration policies, the move is a step forward and a promise fulfilled by the Trump administration.
“The attorney general is trying to retrieve aliens irrevocably ‘lost in space’ by ensuring that a court date finally arrives,” said Dan Stein, president, Federation for American Immigration Reform, in an email to Courthouse News. “This helps restore credibility to our court system.”