Houston Public Media

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Limits When Immigration Judges Can Postpone Hearings

A decision by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making it harder for immigration judges to postpone hearings for immigrants while they wait for special petitions that would allow them to stay in the country legally. 

Lawyers say they expect, as a result, some immigrants will be deported while they wait on petitions that would have allowed them to stay in the country.

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“It means that they (immigrants) could get deported when they actually have a pathway to stay in the United States lawfully,” said Andrea Guttin, Legal Director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative. 

The decision by Sessions could affect crime victims, people who qualify for permanent residence because of their marriage to a U.S. citizen and others. 

The new rule is among a number of the administration’s moves intended to make courts more efficient considering a backlog of over 700,000 cases.

“The Justice Department has made great strides in fighting the immigration court’s backlog by hiring more judges and reducing the time it takes to hire judges by more than 50%, but unnecessary and improper continuances—like the 30-plus issued in one case—continue to plague the immigration court system and contribute to the backlog,” said Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley in a written statement. 

But, immigration lawyers argue it’s yet another move by the Department of Justice to increase deportations and further limit the authority of immigration judges. 

“The Attorney General has tightened the vise on immigration judges even further by interfering with an important case management tool that judges use to ensure cases are resolved fairly and justly,” said American Immigration Lawyers Association President Anastasia Tonello in a written statement.

“Along with a 700 case per judge quota and the end of administrative closure, this decision to limit continuance further removes decision-making power from judges and speeds up the court process without regard for fairness or due process,” Andrea Guttin told Houston Public Media in a statement. She said a better way to deal with the historic backlog is to hire more judges and to improve access to legal representation for immigrants facing deportation. 

In response to the establishment of case quotas, Retired Immigration Judge William Zimmer said judges shouldn’t be rushed into deciding a case. 

“You can’t tell a court you only have so much time because time is important to procedure, to due process. You just can’t have a time constraint on when to finish a case. It’s just not good for independent decision making,” Zimmer said. 

Houston’s immigration courts currently have 12 judges (9 non-detained, 3 detained), where over 50,000 cases are pending, according to data collected by Syracuse University. Over 100,000 cases are pending in the state of Texas.