Im­mi­gra­tion courts: Jeff Ses­sions bars judges from de­por­ta­tion cases on hold.

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Bob Egelko San Francisco Chron­i­cle staff writer Hamed Aleaziz con­trib­uted to this re­port. Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @BobEgelko

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions barred the na­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion judges Thurs­day from putting de­por­ta­tion cases on hold, a prac­tice used in hun­dreds of thou­sands of cases of im­mi­grants who needed time to gain le­gal sta­tus or were found to be low pri­or­i­ties for re­moval.

The pro­ce­dure known as “ad­min­is­tra­tive clo­sure,” used by im­mi­gra­tion judges since the 1980s, “lacks a valid le­gal foun­da­tion,” Ses­sions said in a de­ci­sion based on his author­ity over im­mi­gra­tion courts, a branch of his Jus­tice Depart­ment.

Lawyers and ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants said they feared the de­ci­sion would lead to many de­por­ta­tions of mi­grants who would no longer have the op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish their right to re­main in the coun­try, while adding huge num­bers of cases to the al­ready over­whelmed im­mi­gra­tion courts.

Ses­sions is “mak­ing it more com­pli­cated for peo­ple who have le­git­i­mate rea­sons to be­come le­gal,” said Jef­frey Chase, a New York im­mi­gra­tion lawyer and for­mer im­mi­gra­tion judge. In many cases, he said, “the end re­sult is go­ing to be quick de­por­ta­tion.”

Trina Real­muto, an at­tor­ney with the Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Coun­cil, said the de­ci­sion was “harm­ful to im­mi­grants and their com­mu­ni­ties” and re­flected Ses­sions’ “anti-im­mi­grant an­i­mus.”

Im­mi­gra­tion courts de­cide whether im­mi­grants who en­ter the U.S. with­out au­tho­riza­tion, or over­stay their visas, have le­gal grounds to re­main in the coun­try, such as po­lit­i­cal asy­lum or un­due hard­ship to U.S. fam­ily mem­bers, or must be de­ported. Ses­sions has or­dered ev­ery im­mi­gra­tion judge to com­plete 700 cases a year, a sharp in­crease in their cur­rent work­load, and has sep­a­rately called for crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of all il­le­gal en­trants.

He has also taken over sev­eral cases from the im­mi­gra­tion courts to de­cide for him­self, in­clud­ing the sub­ject of Thurs­day’s de­ci­sion. In an­other such case, he ended im­mi­gra­tion judges’ pre­vi­ous obli­ga­tion to hold a full hear­ing for any­one seek­ing po­lit­i­cal asy­lum. Ses­sions is also con­sid­er­ing elim­i­nat­ing the right to asy­lum for vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and other non­govern­men­tal crimes in their home­lands. Any of those de­ci­sions can be chal­lenged in fed­eral ap­peals courts.

The pro­ce­dure Ses­sions pro­hib­ited Thurs­day has been used by past ad­min­is­tra­tions to al­low im­mi­gra­tion courts to man­age their dock­ets, de­cide which de­por­ta­tion to hear first, and give some im­mi­grants time to change their sta­tus.

For ex­am­ple, an im­mi­grant might be seek­ing a visa through mar­riage to a U.S. cit­i­zen or ap­peal­ing a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion that was grounds for de­por­ta­tion. The im­mi­gra­tion courts al­ready have a back­log of nearly 700,000 cases, a num­ber that would rise to over a mil­lion if ad­min­is­tra­tive clo­sures are elim­i­nated, said Sara Ramey, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mi­grant Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights.

But Ses­sions said the clo­sures, pur­port­edly tem­po­rary, are “ef­fec­tively per­ma­nent in most in­stances,” leav­ing cases sus­pended with­out a fi­nal res­o­lu­tion.

He said im­mi­gra­tion judges need not re­turn all the closed cases to their cal­en­dars im­me­di­ately, but could phase them in.

Chase, the for­mer im­mi­gra­tion judge, said the rul­ing might be ap­pealed on the grounds that Congress has given im­mi­gra­tion judges le­gal author­ity to man­age their dock­ets. Bill Hing, a Univer­sity of San Francisco im­mi­gra­tion law pro­fes­sor, was less hope­ful, say­ing Congress has largely left the man­age­ment of those courts to the at­tor­ney gen­eral.

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