Trump’s New Attorney General Launches Fresh Changes to Immigration Courts

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr is making his first major moves on immigration policy since his confirmation, setting up big changes for the courts that decide whether immigrants will stay in the U.S. or be deported.

The Justice Department is on the verge of issuing rule changes that would make it easier for a handful of appellate immigration judges to declare their rulings binding on the entire immigration system, The Chronicle has learned. The changes could also expand the use of single-judge, cursory decisions at the appellate level — all at the same time as a hiring spree that could reshape the court.

The Trump administration bills the moves as efficiency measures to help fix a delay-plagued immigration court system, at a time it is being inundated by asylum seekers at the southern border. Asylum cases can take years to complete, even those that are relatively straightforward.

But advocates for immigrants and attorneys who work in the system fear the efficiency tools could be used to dramatically reshape immigration law to fit President Trump’s political goals.

Trump has repeatedly railed against the immigration court system and suggested doing away with it entirely.

“Congress has to … get rid of the whole asylum system because it doesn’t work,” Trump said this month. “And frankly, we should get rid of judges. You can’t have a court case every time somebody steps their foot on our ground.”

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions frequently cited the immigration-case backlog as dire and made reducing it a central focus of his tenure, though it grew by more than 100,000 cases in that time to its current total of more than 800,000. Recently ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen complained that migrants with weak asylum cases were clogging the system, slowing immigration judges from handling legitimate claims.

Last week, the Justice Department revived a proposed regulation originally initiated during the George W. Bush administration to allow the 21-judge appeals court system that hears immigration cases more latitude to issue cursory opinions without explanation. It would also allow the court to set precedents with only a small minority of appeals judges participating, which could sharply accelerate the administration’s ability to make changes to immigration law that wouldn’t require congressional action.

By Tal Kopan for SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
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