Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a ruling Thursday restoring discretion to immigration judges by allowing them to administratively close cases, a move that could prove significant in chipping away at the more than million case backlog facing immigration courts.
Thursday’s ruling would allow immigration judges to put cases on hold or remove them from the active docket, if appropriate — an authority that was stripped during the Trump administration to the frustration of some judges. The US immigration court system falls under the Justice Department.
“It’s a very practical tool that judges need to control their dockets,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president emerita at the National Association of Immigration Judges, the immigration judges union.
“It makes sense in immigration because of the fact that there are certain applications and benefits that people can qualify for that require a preliminary step in by either [US Citizenship and Immigration Services] or sometimes by a state court and that action may determine whether someone is eligible for a benefit before the court,” Marks said.
Former President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, implemented a series of changes to the immigration court system that continued under his successor, William Barr.
Under Trump, the Justice Department imposed case quotas, gave more power to the director charged with overseeing the courts, reversed rulings, curtailed judges’ ability to exercise discretion in some cases and moved to decertify the union of immigration judges. Some immigration judges quit in response.
Last month, the Justice Department reversed two Trump-era immigration decisions that narrowed who could qualify for asylum, including an opinion that removed some protections for victims of domestic violence and gang violence.
Garland vacated two iterations of the decision known as “Matter of A-B” — a decision made by Sessions in 2018 that set a high bar for victims of crime to qualify for asylum, saying that victims must show that their home country was unable or unwilling to assist them and that “the government condoned the private actions.”
At issue was part of asylum law that protects members of a “particular social group” who are victims of persecution. Prior to the Trump administration, immigration courts held that women in Central America facing domestic abuse qualified.
Garland, who has authority to set precedent in these cases as attorney general, also vacated a decision issued by his predecessor that limited whether family constitutes a “particular social group” for asylum claims. The Barr decision, the “Matter of L-E-A,” restricted asylum claims for people who face persecution based on their family association.
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