WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government on Friday announced changes to the agency that runs the country's immigration courts, giving its director authority to weigh in and make appellate rulings on cases.
The interim rule published by the Justice Department faced immediate criticism by the immigration judges' union and immigration lawyers' association, which say the Trump administration is trying to exert political sway over immigration court decisions.
The rule gives the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review the ability to issue appellate decisions in cases that haven't been decided within an allotted timeframe. It also cements the administration's decision to create an office of policy for the immigration courts in 2017.
The rule comes as the Justice Department has sought to terminate the immigration judges' union and imposed performance targets and rules for docket management on judges amid a surge in Central American families seeking asylum on the southwest border.
The country's 440 immigration judges make decisions about who is eligible for asylum or green cards and who should be returned to their countries in courts backlogged with 900,000 cases. The judges are employees of the Justice Department, but their union has asked to become independent of the executive branch.
Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor, the union's president, said allowing the director to rule on court cases is the Trump administration's latest effort to strip judges of their autonomy and turn the courts into a federal law enforcement agency.
"They are collapsing what are supposed to be separate functions," she said. "It confirms what we have suspected, frankly, now for a couple of years: that their ultimate goal is to dismantle the courts."
The rule will be officially published Monday and takes effect 60 days after.
A message seeking comment was sent to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Kate Voigt, associate director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the office of policy has been involved in a number of recent changes at the courts, and said she was concerned about giving the director this expanded authority.
"I think it's another way to have political decisions imposed on the immigration courts," she said. "We're really concerned this is another way to try to speed cases along and undermine cases."
The office this week sent judges a morning news briefing that included a blog post from a virulently anti-immigration website that also publishes work by white nationalists. Assistant Press Secretary Kathryn Mattingly said the daily morning news briefings are compiled by a contractor and the blog post should not have been included.
"The Department of Justice condemns Anti-Semitism in the strongest terms," she said.
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, California.