WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is seeking to eliminate potentially hundreds of thousands of pending deportation and asylum cases in immigration courts, an unprecedented move that could significantly reduce the current backlog of 1.7 million of cases.
In a memo dated Sunday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement instructed its attorneys to review cases and try to weed out those deemed low priority under enforcement guidelines the administration established last year. last. The American Immigration Lawyers Association estimates that there are at least 700,000 such cases, or about 40% of the backlog.
The agency would not provide an estimate of how many cases would be resolved under the directive or how long it would take. Previous administrations have removed cases from the court docket, but not on such a large scale. During the eight years of the Obama administration, more than 166,000 immigration cases were closed administratively, according to court data.
The backlog has never been greater, resulting in years-long delays for immigrants seeking asylum and other forms of relief. One of the reasons is that the coronavirus pandemic has delayed proceedings. A significant number of cases have been added under the Trump administration, particularly after an increase in the number of undocumented migrants crossing the border in 2019. This administration also reopened tens of thousands of cases that had been removed from the docket. of the court.
The effort to reduce the backlog comes as the Biden administration braces for what could be the biggest increase yet in undocumented migrants crossing the border. The increase is expected to coincide with the end of a pandemic-era public health order that gave border officials the power to quickly deport undocumented migrants.
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It is the latest in a series of efforts by the Biden administration to streamline immigration enforcement in the absence of congressional action.
An ICE official, authorized by the agency to speak publicly without being identified, said attorneys would review each case in court to see if it meets the administration’s enforcement priorities: involving a threat to public safety or national security, as well as those involving persons who have recently crossed the border without documents.
According to data from the Ministry of Justice, there are currently more than 300,000 “administratively closed cases”. Although inactive cases can be put back on the court calendar at any time by any administration, they usually remain closed for many years.
Under the Trump administration, more than 34,000 cases have been returned to the immigration court docket. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling that limited the power of immigration judges to remove cases from the court calendar — a practice, he wrote, that “hampers fair administration.” and efficient immigration business”.
The Biden administration disagrees.
“Our immigration enforcement efforts are focused on those who pose a threat to public safety, the security of our borders, and our national security,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said Monday. , in a press release. “The memo released today allows our law enforcement attorneys to focus more on these priorities, and it will help clear up a long-standing backlog that has clogged the immigration court system and prevented ‘quickly eliminate the biggest threats.’
Closing, dismissing and streamlining low-priority cases, the ICE official said, is a fair and effective way to deal with what has been an insurmountable backlog.
ICE officials wouldn’t say how long each case review should take. The effort comes after a similar but smaller one that began in February to reject some family immigration cases and refer people to U.S. citizenship and immigration services, a process that takes less time.
Greg Chen, senior director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, hailed the plan as a proactive step, but said “the case-by-case analysis is much more laborious than if they did a sweep of the database” to determine which ones could be removed from the record.
The directive will come into force this month. At the end of May, when the pandemic-related public health rule that limited immigration is lifted, officials expect a significant increase in border crossings, including many asylum-seeking migrants who will be summoned to court. ‘immigration.
A new separate asylum policy from the Biden administration, which will require people crossing the border without papers to have their claims assessed by asylum officers instead of immigration judges, will not be fully operational for some time. month.
Undocumented migrants must seek asylum before immigration judges within one year of arrival. Generally, asylum seekers who are not detained receive a summons with a hearing date and wait on average more than five years before appearing in court.
But the throngs of people fleeing to escape poverty, violence and humanitarian disasters have been so large that border officials have taken shortcuts when processing some people in the United States, releasing them without a court date and asking them to complete the paperwork later. This means that even more cases are directed to the immigration court system.
The decision to clear the cases from the docket could draw criticism from conservatives, who may see it as easy on undocumented immigrants.
“Any initiative involving a large number of case closures would certainly be considered a form of amnesty, as it would involve not prosecuting immigrants for certain immigration violations,” said David J. Bier, issues researcher. immigration at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.