Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases

Attorney General Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bad week in Trumpland signals hope for American democracy Threats of violence spark fear of election worker exodus MORE on Thursday overturned an immigration court decision from predecessor Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE that barred judges from essentially pausing low priority cases and removing them from a docket amid a crushing backlog of cases.

The immigration court system, which is housed within the Department of Justice (DOJ), saw its backlog more than double under the Trump administration to 1.3 million as immigration officials forwarded a deluge of cases seeking deportation.

Garland wrote that other court cases found “that administrative closure is plainly within an immigration judge’s authority under Department of Justice regulations” and said Sessions’s ruling “departed from long-standing practice.”

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Administrative closure allows judges to pause cases for those who may already be seeking a green card or other ways to regularize their status in the U.S., including a number seeking asylum. 

“It also has served to facilitate the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, allowing government counsel to request that certain low-priority cases be removed from immigration judges’ active calendars or the board’s docket, thereby allowing adjudicators to focus on higher-priority cases,” Garland wrote.

Garland’s post gives him the power to review decisions made in the immigration court system, a power attorneys general used frequently under the Trump administration.

The decision follows a memo to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prosecutors last month giving them greater discretion to drop cases and outlining a number of criteria to help steer the agency’s lawyers away from the deportation cases that surged under Trump.

That memo encouraged the agency's lawyers to drop cases against green card holders and those who are elderly, pregnant or have serious health conditions or have been in the U.S. from an early age, and to consider other “compelling humanitarian factors” before trying a case in court.

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Garland in June struck down two other Trump-era attorney general decisions that limited asylum for victims of domestic violence as well as those seeking asylum based on ties to persecuted family members — something that could be particularly important to those from countries with serious gang violence.

The move followed pressure from immigration advocacy groups to review all of the 17 attorney general-level immigration court decisions made under the Trump administration. 

The current backlog is leaving some waiting years for their cases to be heard in court.

Greg Chen with the American Immigration Lawyers Association previously told The Hill that he estimates that some 460,000 people on the docket have applications for status pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services but are still being asked to make immigration court appearances roughly every three to six months.