Sessions would get tough on immigration
He could make numerous changes as attorney general
WASHINGTON — Tougher i mmigration judges. More prosecution of low-level immigration-law violations. And a cut-off of some law enforcement funds to cities that don’t hew to a harsher immigration policy.
Even without changing a single law, these are some of the major changes in immigration policy that Sen. Jeff Sessions could pursue if he is confirmed as U.S. attorney general.
While most enforcement of immigration law rests with agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, offices in the Justice Department also play a major role in administering immigration law.
But Sessions also will have broad discretion to change immigration policies under other laws.
“He can have a tremendous impact,” said John Sandweg, who was acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2014.
The attorney general “has complete control over the immigration courts and whether to use criminal prosecutions against immigrants,” he said.
Immigration judges are chosen by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. The office sets standards for hiring and vetting judges, and for the training and instructions they receive on how to interpret immigration law.
“Most people don’t realize we are not technically judges,” Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said from San Francisco, where she has presided over immigration cases since the 1980s.
“In terms of our technical employment status, we are attorney employees of the Department of Justice, which we believe does make us much more vulnerable to political influence than we would be in an independent court structure,” Marks said.
When i mmigration judges are hired, they can be fired for any reason during a two-year probationary period. After that, they are protected from dismissal by the same rules that shield other civil servants.
Immigration courts have been understaffed for more than a decade, creating a huge backlog of cases in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and New York.
In all, 522,000 deportation cases are pending in immigration courts, and cases may take three or four years to resolve in the most backed-up jurisdictions.
The Obama administration recently hired 61 immigration judges, Marks said, bringing the total to 294. But that is far below the 374 judges Congress has authorized.
Many judges are expected to retire in the next few years. That could allow Sessions to hire dozens of new judges who agree with his hard-line views.
Former aides to Sessions were instrumental in adding tough immigration proposals to the GOP platform at the Republican National Convention in July, including cutting federal funding to cities that don’t cooperate with i mmigration agents, and increasing penalties for migrants convicted of illegally re-entering the U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is said to be offering the post of attorney general to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of Trump’s closest and most consistent allies.
As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Sessions could implement those policies.
He would oversee the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which reimburses local jails for holding federal prisoners under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.
In Senate speeches, Sessions has repeatedly called for cutting those funds to push local authorities to identify migrants in the country illegally and hand them over to federal agents.
Trump’s transition policy team has drawn up plans to pressure so-called sanctuary cities — including Los Angeles and Chicago — to help immigration agents identify those here illegally.
“The issue of sanctuary cities is substantially in the hands of the attorney general,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that advocates for lower immigration levels.
Under Sessions, Justice Department lawyers could try to get federal court orders for local officials to cooperate with federal immigration agents.
“First thing you do is you file suit, then you get a judge to issue an injunction” to force cities to stop their policies, said Krikorian, who has submitted policy proposals to Trump’s advisers.
“The nuclear option is you criminally prosecute city council members and supervisors for illegally harboring illegal aliens, which they are,” Krikorian said.