National Security

House Democrats push Garland for immigration court reforms

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington
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A coalition of 60 House Democrats is calling on Attorney General Merrick Garland to use the authority of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to make sweeping changes to an immigration court system dramatically altered by the Trump administration. 

Under the prior administration, the backlog of cases sitting in court more than doubled to 1.3 million — a figure that could leave migrants waiting more than four years for a hearing in their cases.

But lawmakers, in an effort spearheaded by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), are urging Garland to take a number of actions, ranging from blanket removal of cases from the docket to unwinding a number of decisions they say politicized the immigration court system run by DOJ.

The letter comes as momentum on immigration reform has largely stalled in Congress, increasing the importance of agency action if President Biden wants to have an impact on the immigration system. 

At the heart of the letter is a call for the new administration to review Board of Immigration Appeals decisions that limited asylum along with regulations that limited the discretion of immigration court judges. 

“The Trump Administration took aggressive steps to rewrite asylum law and restrict discretionary decision-making and judicial independence. These policy changes—implemented by your predecessors through the certification of BIA decisions and the promulgation of regulations—must be immediately reviewed and reversed,” they wrote.

“We are also concerned with the prior Administration’s overt efforts to politicize the immigration courts by prioritizing individuals with political connections and enforcement-heavy backgrounds—rather than knowledge of immigration law or judicial experience,” they continued.

The Biden administration has called for hiring 100 new immigration judges as part of its budget. It’s a figure experts say will do little to help with the backlog but that may help balance out former President Trump’s influence on the court.

The Trump administration filled roughly two-thirds of the 520 lifetime seats on the immigration court bench, often picking those with long careers in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

The Biden administration, however, recently proceeded with hiring 17 immigration court lawyers initially selected under Trump. 

The lawmakers also threw their weight behind a push from the National Association of Immigration Judges seeking to reverse a Trump-era imposition of quotas on judges, asking them to decide 700 cases each year, a move both camps argue “infringed upon their independence and ability to render consistent and fully informed decisions.”

The letter also asks Garland to consider removing large swaths of cases from the immigration court backlog, nixing those where applicants may have already applied for status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or whose cases have already lingered for years and have not been deemed a priority. 

“Considerable systemic pressure could be alleviated by removing up to 700,000 cases from the court docket that should not be priorities for court adjudication,” they wrote.

The request comes after an ICE memo giving its attorneys more discretion to drop cases.

While Garland has acknowledged the backlog is an issue, he’s yet to outline what measure DOJ is considering to address it.

“We need to get the backlog down; we need to streamline our processes,” he told lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday.

The letter also calls on DOJ to consider expanding programs that provide free legal help to those in a court system where there is no guarantee to counsel.

“We encourage you to expand legal representation and orientation programs for these vulnerable populations and others, and to request appropriate funding from Congress to accomplish this objective,” the lawmakers wrote.

Tags backlog Donald Trump Immigration immigration courts Joe Biden Justice Department Merrick Garland Pramila Jayapal

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