• June 15, 2021

Exclusive: Lawmakers urge Merrick Garland to restore asylum law, enact immigration court reforms

 Exclusive: Lawmakers urge Merrick Garland to restore asylum law, enact immigration court reforms

“As you know, the Trump administration took aggressive steps to rewrite asylum law and restrict discretionary decision-making and judicial independence,” they write to Garland. That included former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions IIII punishing domestic violence survivors seeking asylum and imposing a quota system that one former immigration judge called “an affront to judicial independence.” Legislators write that “[u]ltimately, long-term structural reform is needed, and we look forward to the eventual enactment of legislation to create an independent Article I immigration court.”

Legislators in their recommendations urge a “leadership-driven” review of the enormous 1.3 million cases in the immigration court backlog, as well as to begin a review of immigration judge appointments, writing that the previous administration “politicized the immigration courts by prioritizing individuals with political connections and enforcement-heavy backgrounds.” They write that the previous fiscal year saw a “historic” asylum denial rate of 72%, “as compared to 54.6 percent in FY 2016.”

Disappointingly, the appointment of judges with enforcement-heavy backgrounds to the immigration courts has continued into the Biden administration. Immigration Impact said last month that of 17 new appointments by the Biden administration, seven previously worked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “Only two have worked as immigration defense attorneys, both of whom have also worked for ICE.”

Legislators further urge the administration to continue its recent efforts to expand legal representation to vulnerable people in immigration courts. Unlike the criminal court system, people in immigration court, including children, are not guaranteed legal help if they can’t afford it. “Currently the federal government funds representation for only a limited number of unaccompanied children and people with mental disorders or disabilities,” they continue. “We encourage you to expand legal representation and orientation programs for these vulnerable populations and others, and to request appropriate funding from Congress to accomplish this objective.”

“We stand ready to work with you to restore the foundational principles of justice, fairness, and transparency to the immigration system, and would appreciate a briefing on these issues at your earliest convenience,” legislators conclude.

The full list of recommendations and letter signatories is available here. Dozens of local, state, and national organizations have endorsed the recommendations, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, RAICES, and SPLC Action Fund. “The DOJ needs to get this done now as we work to humanely reform our broken immigration system,” Jayapal tweeted.

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