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Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017.
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The DOJ Decision That Could Mean Thousands More Deportations

Sessions considers tying the hands of immigration judges.

Imagine you’re an immigration judge and someone is standing before you, facing deportation. You need to make a decision, but there are complications. Maybe the person is still waiting to hear about a visa application, or she seems too mentally incompetent to understand what is happening. One tool at your disposal is to “administratively close” the case. You haven’t granted the person legal status, but you’ve stopped deportation proceedings — possibly indefinitely.

Administrative closure sounds like one of the driest bureaucratic terms imaginable, but it has huge implications for immigrants and their families. Now, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who oversees immigration judges, is considering limiting that power.

Sessions wrote in a recent brief that he would review judges’ authority to administratively close immigration cases, the latest in a series of Department of Justice memos and policies that could reshape immigration courts and make it even harder for people to remain in the U.S.

Administrative closure has been used frequently by judges to drop cases against people who aren’t a priority for deportation or who have other pending legal issues. Judges under the Obama administration used this option far more than previous judges, administratively closing 180,000 cases in four years. Critics say it operates as a kind of backdoor amnesty, particularly for people who don’t qualify for other kinds of relief under immigration law.

Closed cases are in a sort of limbo: the immigrant isn’t legally in the U. S., but the government isn’t pursuing deportation. Authorities can change their mind at any time. Under Obama, this usually happened only if the immigrant went on to commit a crime or if there was a development in his or her legal status. But the Trump Administration has already begun re-opening thousands of administratively closed cases. Immigration judges under Trump have also stopped closing cases for people who didn’t used to be an enforcement priority — such as parents of U.S. citizen children who had been in the country for a long time and had no criminal record.

Judges, attorneys and advocates say that ending administrative closure entirely could have a significant impact on individual cases and the immigration court system overall. Sessions could decide to reopen as many as 350,000 closed cases, which could flood a backlogged system that has 650,000 pending cases.

“If he brings them all back into court at once, that’s going to cripple the courts even further,” said Paul Wickham Schmidt, a former immigration judge and former head of the Board of Immigration Appeals. “They can’t do the cases they have now — why is he out there looking for more?”

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The Department of Justice declined to comment.

There are groups of immigrants for whom administrative closure is particularly important. Someone being deported for a crime but still fighting the conviction may have his or her case closed while an appeal is pending. Judges may also stop removal proceedings for immigrants with serious mental health issues or intellectual disabilities if they are found to be incompetent to go through court hearings.

Many undocumented children also ask for administrative closure while they’re applying for juvenile protected status, a legal status that can take years to wind its way through state family court and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Without administrative closure, “those children could be deported while their application for a green card is pending with another immigration agency,” said Nicholas Phillips, an immigration attorney with Prisoners Legal Services of New York.

If administrative closure isn’t an option, judges have another option of issuing a continuance, which postpones the decision. However, that practice also recently came under fire from the attorney general. Sessions’ office recently criticized the increased use of continuances by immigration judges, saying they delayed the courts.

The Justice Department has made several decisions and proposals recently that would change how immigration judges do their job.

This fall, the department proposed setting case completion quotas for judges to try to speed up decision-making. It released a memo in December that reminding judges to act “impartially” when looking at cases involving children, despite their commonly sympathetic stories. DOJ also said judges should give asylum applications more careful scrutiny and be more reluctant to postpone a case.

Sessions’ announcement of the review came when he intervened in the immigration case of a minor who arrived from Guatemala in 2014. He has asked the Department of Homeland Security and other interested groups to submit briefs on the issue of administrative closure by a February deadline.