The Ecuadorean woman had two paths toward gaining legal status after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border several years ago, but with deportation looming, her time was running out.
In the past, her attorney, Iris Ramos, said she would have asked the federal government to allow the woman to remain in Minnesota with her family while waiting to hear if she could stay permanently. But as an immigration court date neared, Ramos decided it wasn’t worth it.
“I knew the government would be opposed every step of the way,” Ramos said.
Under the Trump administration, federal officials have balked at putting deportation cases on hold, even if immigrants have pending visa or green card applications. That’s a reversal from the final years of the Obama administration, when the number of those indefinite reprieves exploded. In Twin Cities immigration court, such reprieves, called administrative closures, make up 6 percent of outcomes so far this fiscal year, compared with almost a third of all rulings two years ago, according to data compiled by Syracuse University.
Supporters of reducing immigration have cheered the shift, reinforced by a legal opinion issued in May by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying the government has no obligation to wait to find out if those who had broken immigration laws might gain legal status down the road.
“Unfortunately, all too often under the Obama administration, this procedure became nothing more than a ‘backdoor amnesty’ for aliens who entered illegally and had no relief,” said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge who is now a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates restricting immigration.
But some attorneys and immigrant advocates argue it is more humane and efficient to put deportations on hold as bids to stay play out. They also warn the shift could worsen a massive immigration court backlog. At Minnesota’s Bloomington Immigration Court, more than 7,000 cases are pending.
“I don’t know that this shift in policy is promoting anything other than separating families,” said Misti Binsfeld, the chairwoman of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
A new direction
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to more administrative closures for immigrants in deportation proceedings when the Obama administration narrowed its deportation priorities to focus on criminals and recent border crossers. In part, said former Twin Cities immigration judge Susan Castro, the government was recognizing that amid backlogs, some visa and green card applications with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, ICE’s sister agency at the Department of Homeland Security, can take years to process.
Closing the cases puts the immigrants in a legal limbo: They don’t gain legal status but are generally allowed to work and remain safe from deportation, though their cases can be reopened at any time — if they commit a crime, for example.
Then, months into the Trump administration, “You could definitely see that a new directive had gone out,” said Castro, who retired from the bench last summer.
Local ICE attorneys have been reluctant to back off in deportation cases, pointing out that immigrants often can wait in their home countries and return if applications for legal status are approved.
That’s why Ramos, the Minneapolis attorney, expected the government to oppose a request to administratively close her Ecuadorean client’s case. The woman had applied for asylum at the border, claiming she had suffered severe domestic abuse back home. More recently, a man she married received a U visa — for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement — after he was the victim of a felonious assault. With that, they can both apply for permanent residence in three years.
Instead of seeking administrative closure, Ramos asked for a delay in the case, which the government did not oppose and an immigration judge granted.
Metro Transit case
The issue also came up last year in the highly publicized case of a man detained by ICE after a Metro Transit officer inquired about his immigration status. ICE attorneys argued against letting the man out on bail and delaying his deportation case, saying he could wait in his native Mexico for the outcome of a U visa application he had filed.
But Judge Ryan Wood said his application appeared likely to be approved and granted his release.
Such judicial decisions have rankled the administration. In a May decision setting broad precedent, Sessions said judges do not have the authority to grant administrative closure in the overwhelming majority of cases.
He has lambasted the previous administration for closing almost 200,000 court cases in five years, more than those closed in the previous two decades combined. With many cases remaining suspended without a final resolution, Sessions wrote in last week’s opinion, “administrative closure encumbers the fair and efficient administration of immigration cases.”
But Castro, the retired judge, said that amid a staggering backlog of cases, it makes sense to clear those in which immigrants have a shot at staying legally from the court calendar. Fighting such cases in court while USCIS staff reviews sometimes cumbersome applications, she said, can be a “ridiculous waste of time and resources.”
The shift is in keeping with the administration’s philosophy on immigration, she said.
“The message is if you didn’t come in the correct way, get out,” Castro said. “Certainly under the law, that’s a reasonable thing to say. But it doesn’t take into account the effects of such a broad, harsh policy.”