FALLS CHURCH, Va. (CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a class of newly-minted immigration judges on Monday that they have an obligation to decide cases efficiently in a system besieged by ballooning dockets and lengthy backlogs.
The class of 44 new immigration judges is the largest in U.S. history, and they will now be placed at courts around the nation where they will collectively face a backlog of over 730,000 cases, many of which have been languishing for years.
“We have a lot to do right now,” the attorney general said, adding that the system for seeking asylum in the U.S. has been “abused for years.”
Sessions told judges lawyers around the U.S. were actively working to subvert the “plain words” of the Immigration and Nationality Act, or INA, and attack its “integrity.”
Unlike the federal judicial system, U.S. immigration courts are under the purview of the Justice Department and as attorney general, Sessions can intervene on immigration rulings at any time.
As head arbiter of the Board of Immigration Appeals, he can review judicial decisions, grant continuances or render asylum requests moot, if he so chooses.
Without proper enforcement of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the “effective and efficient” manner in which immigration requests are processed implodes, Sessions said Monday.
“Many in this country take a different view. They object to any enforcement that works. They evidence an open borders philosophy,” Sessions said.
But that type of philosophy is misguided, he explained.
“It is perfectly legitimate, moral and decent for a nation to have a legal system of immigration and enforce the system it adopts,” he said. “But no great and prosperous nation can have both a generous welfare system and open borders.”
“Such a policy is both radical and dangerous. It must be rejected out of hand,” he added.
Sessions admitted the INA’s current formation is “imperfect” but emphasized the need for judges to exercise “rationality” when determining how many immigrants – and under what circumstances –are permitted entry.
Sessions has spearheaded the administration’s crack down on illegal immigration.
On Aug. 16, he issued an order to immigration judges notifying them that they must speed up removal proceedings and only postpone those that show “good cause.”
“Good cause,” according to the order, is based only on whether a person is likely to succeed in their efforts to remain in the U.S.
The asylum system is just one aspect that has been “abused for years,” Sessions said Monday.
Applicants saying a few simple words when they claim a fear of returning to their home country has “transformed a straightforward arrest for illegal entry and immediate return … into a prolonged legal process, where an alien may be released from custody into the U.S. and possibly never show up for an immigration hearing,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security, which conducts so-called “credible fear” reviews for asylum applicants, has also skyrocketed in the last nine years, Sessions said.
In 2009, the department conducted just over 5,000 credible fear reviews. By 2016, that number shot up to 94,000.
As a result, the number of immigration court proceedings involving asylum seekers increased too. Proceedings went from fewer than 4,000 to over 73,000 by 2016, Sessions said.
“And we understand all are due proper respect and the proper legal process but we cannot abandon legal discipline and sound legal concepts,” he added, noting that in the last five years alone, just 20 percent of asylum claims were deemed meritorious after a hearing before an immigration judge.
The attorney general issued a stern reminder to the judges as well.
Their goal is not merely to prosecute but “to deter and end illegality,” he said.
“If someone is smuggling illegal aliens across our Southwest border, then we will prosecute them. Period,” he said.
Shrinking the backlog will likely be made more difficult in light of a decision by the Justice Department to reopen nearly 8,000 immigration cases this year.
Those cases were temporarily removed from dockets through a process known as administrative closure.
Administrative closure allows judges to pause some cases or prioritize others. While laborious and often slow-moving process, administrative closures help preserve due process.
The Justice Department has previously said it anticipates cutting the 730,000 backlog by 50 percent by 2020.
“As you take on this critically important role, I hope that you will be imaginative and inventive in order to manage a high-volume caseload. I do not apologize for expecting you to perform, at a high level, efficiently and effectively,” Sessions said.