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Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing an judicial policy that could potentially reshape the way immigration courts work and thrust thousands of people’s legal status into question.
Mr Sessions is questioning whether he should revoke judge’s ability to conduct “administrative closures” of immigration proceedings, which allow judges to close the cases without a decision.
The announced review comes after Mr Sessions intervened Friday in the case of immigrant Reynaldo Castro-Tum, and could yield results that impact every immigration judge in the federal system.
The review asks whether he should revoke the administrative closures policy, but also asks where there are other mechanisms to address the concerns. He also wants to know if his Justice Department thinks that the 350,000 cases that are currently closed under the policy should be reviewed.
Administrative closures are seen as a lifeline to immigrants in the country as they apply for citizenship, visas, or permanent residency. The closures shield the immigrants from deportation as their other petitions are considered, but have been criticised for allowing immigrants to stay in the country too long.
While there are roughly 350,000 such closures, a majority of those were handed down during just four years of President Barack Obama’s tenure. During those four years, roughly 180,000 administrative closures were granted.
Mr Sessions’ review could have significant impacts on the judges and employees of the Justice Department tasked with reviewing immigration cases. All of those individuals serve the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which would give Mr Sessions considerable oversight over their actions even if they chose to assert independence.
The potential change comes as the Trump administration considers how to close a hefty backlog of immigration cases that have tied up American immigration courts. There are roughly 650,000 cases waiting to be decided, and Mr Sessions announced last year that he would play a heavy role in figuring out how to reduce that number.
In a memo sent to about 350 immigration judges and their staff in December, Mr Sessions bristled at the notion that reducing that backlog is an untenable goal, and said that the department must work to find legal ways to expedite the processing.
“While we continue to hire additional immigration judges, and support personnel to address these challenges, we must all work to identify and adopt — consistent with the law — additional procedures and techniques that will increase efficiencies, and ensure the timely and proper administration of justice,” he wrote.
President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to deport undocumented immigrants, and to erect a wall that would keep future immigrants from crossing the US-Mexico border into the United States.
Since taking office, the President and Mr Sessions have overseen an increase in immigrant arrests within the United States compared to his predecessor, Mr Obama, but a decrease in the overall number of deportations. The immigrant arrests have been criticized by immigration advocates who say that, in a break from Obama-era policy, the arrests have been indiscriminate, and have frequently picked up non-violent immigrants or those without criminal backgrounds.