Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and more than a dozen of her Senate colleagues are seeking additional information on a Trump administration proposal to resuscitate deportation cases that have already been “administratively closed.”
Cortez Masto’s letter comes amid reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to re-calendar some of the approximately 350,000 deportation cases that are inactive due to their low-priority status. Cases were routinely closed by judges at the end of the Obama administration if the defendant didn’t have a criminal background and had deep ties in the country, such as U.S. citizen children, or had become eligible for a work permit. This spring, Sessions revoked judges’ authority to carry out the practice, which was aimed at making room for more urgent cases.
“He’s going to reach back in history and look at all of those cases that the judges have already made determinations in the best interests of the kids. And it is a big problem,” Cortez Masto said in a brief interview with The Nevada Independent after an unrelated event in Las Vegas on Friday. “I see it as a way for this administration to continue down this path to attack undocumented individuals and attack immigrants and it’s wrong. It’s not how the system is set up.”
Asked for comment on the senators’ letter and speculation that some or all administratively closed cases could be reopened, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said the agency was working to re-calendar cases for defendants who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is filing motions with courts overseen by the Executive Office for Immigration Review to re-calendar some cases that were previously administratively closed using prosecutorial discretion (PD) in which the alien has since been arrested for or convicted of a crime. This is being done by the ICE chief counsel offices,” she said in a statement. “Moreover, ICE generally reviews cases previously administratively closed using PD to see if the basis for PD is still appropriate.”
Concern over mass re-calendaring can be traced to a June memo that apparently came from ICE’s Office of the Principal Legal Advisor. The memo indicates “it is DHS’s intention to recalendar all cases that were previously administratively closed for reasons other than authorization by a regulation or judicially approved settlement agreement.”
Cortez Masto said she witnessed firsthand the frustration of immigration judges after Sessions revoked their authority to administratively close cases this spring.
“I went into the courts here to see … and sat through and watched how a judge was frustrated that he no longer has discretion to look out for the best interests of these kids because his authority had been taken away,” she said.
In their letter to Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the 18 Democratic and independent senators raised concerns that reopening the cases would swamp immigration courts. There are more than 730,000 pending cases in immigration courts, and about 355,000 administratively closed cases, which would potentially create a caseload of more than 1 million, they said.
“Any plan to reopen and recalendar all of the currently administratively closed cases will undeniably overwhelm the already flooded immigration court backlog,” they wrote. “Given the population of individuals whose cases were subject to administrative closure, this waste of resources cannot be justified.”
The letter seeks clarification on whether the administration seeks to re-calendar some or all administratively closed cases, how old on average each case is and what criteria it would use to re-calendar cases. It also asks for any documents relevant to plans to re-calendar cases, and what safeguards the administration would put in place to protect unaccompanied immigrant minors and other vulnerable people.
The senators asked the government officials to respond in writing by Sept. 27, although Cortez Masto acknowledged that she has had trouble getting information from the administration through past requests and doesn’t have a sense of how much the practice of re-calendaring cases is affecting or would affect Nevada.
“I can’t tell you how many times that I have sent, and my colleagues have sent, emails to the administration, to Secretary Nielsen, asking [for] this information, and we get stonewalled or they lose the document or they say they’ll get back to us and they never do,” she said. “I mean, it is outrageous to me. I’ve never seen anything quite like it — that there’s no response to U.S. senators about what’s going on.”