DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Trump administration has been trying to ramp up deportations of immigrants in the country illegally. But one thing has been standing in its way - judges who often put these cases on hold. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering overruling those judges, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: I recently met attorney Cheryl David outside Immigration Court in New York City.
You spend a lot of time in there.
CHERYL DAVID: Pretty much every day.
ROSE: David represents hundreds of undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation. In order to stay in the U.S., some have applied for a visa or a green card. But there are so many applications pending that the process can take months, if not years.
DAVID: You know, this is not the private sector where you pay extra money and you can get it done in two days. Things take time.
ROSE: So David is often asking immigration judges to put those deportation proceedings on hold while they wait.
DAVID: It gives our clients some wiggle room to try and move forward on applications. These are human beings. They're not files.
ROSE: But Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks those immigrants are getting too much slack. He's questioning whether judges should be allowed to put deportation cases on hold. Here's Sessions speaking a few months ago.
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JEFF SESSIONS: Basically, they have legalized the person who was coming to court because they were illegally in the country.
ROSE: One practice is particularly infuriating to Sessions and other immigration hard-liners. It's called administrative closure. It allows judges to put cases on hold indefinitely, and Sessions is widely expected to end the practice or at least scale it back. Judges have administratively closed nearly 200,000 cases in the past five years alone.
ANDREW ARTHUR: Far and away, administrative closure was being abused.
ROSE: Andrew Arthur is a former immigration judge. He's now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration. He says many of those cases should have ended in deportation.
ARTHUR: But rather than actually going through that process, the Obama administration simply administratively closed them and took them off the docket to be forgotten.
ROSE: One of those cases caught the attention of Jeff Sessions. It involves a young Guatemalan man who didn't show up for his hearing. The judge wondered if the man ever got the notice to appear in court and put his deportation proceedings on hold. Now Sessions has chosen to personally review his case.
NANCY MORAWETZ: What he wants is he wants an immigration court system which is rapid and leads to lots of deportations.
ROSE: Nancy Morawetz teaches immigration law at New York University. She says the attorney general has the power to revisit immigration court decisions and change them if he wants. It used to be rare for an attorney general to use this power, but Sessions has done it four times in the past three months.
MORAWETZ: It's really quite an unprecedented move by the attorney general to change the way the whole system works.
ROSE: Sessions is also questioning whether judges can continue certain cases and reviewing who should qualify for asylum. He says he's trying to clear a massive backlog of nearly 700,000 cases. But remember, there's also a backlog for visa and green card applications.
BRENDA DELEON: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: Brenda DeLeon is applying for a special visa for crime victims. She says her boyfriend beat her up, and she went to the police. DeLeon came to the U.S. illegally from El Salvador in 2015, fleeing from gang violence, and settled in North Carolina.
DELEON: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: She says, if she goes back to El Salvador, her life would be in danger, and so would her kids. Right now, a judge has put DeLeon's deportation case on hold while she waits for an answer on her visa application. But that could take years. And like thousands of other immigrants, she's worried that she could be deported in the meantime. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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