With the campaign of Donald Trump, illegal immigration took center stage during the run up to the 2016 presidential election. With controversial speeches about a border wall and increased deportations, the debate reached new levels of fervor. And with President Trump in office, that debate rages on.
Now, the latest battle on the immigration warfront has many undocumented immigrants worried that their previously-closed immigration cases will be reopened.
Under the Obama administration, prosecutors could give undocumented immigrants a choice between a) having their case closed and not being deported, or b) fighting for legal status against a prosecutor who will argue for deportation. If the immigrant chose the first option, the prosecutor would ask a judge to close the case rather than issue a ruling on it.
The upshot was that an immigrant wouldn't be deported, but he or she also wouldn't receive legal status. The case could be reopened, but until then, the individual could stay in the country. This helped deal with the large backlog of cases lingering in the system and allowed prosecutors to focus on undocumented immigrants with more serious criminal backgrounds.
The Trump-Sessions Approach
However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided that immigration judges don't have the authority to remove cases without issuing a ruling. He says that unless federal regulations mandate a case be closed, the judge must make an actual ruling. Although the nearly 350,000 closed immigration cases won't automatically be reopened, ICE could make a motion requesting an individual case be reconsidered and adjudicated.
Immigration advocates are worried about this ruling for a number of reasons. For one, many immigrants treated these deals like plea bargains and have relied on the promise that their case is closed and they won't be deported. Had they thought their case could be reopened, they may have chosen to fight for legal status years ago. Additionally, advocates worry that this will add a significant burden to the already hefty backlog of cases facing immigration courts. With limited resources and pressure to adjudicate more cases, advocates are concerned that each person's case won't be given the time and attention it deserves.
If you have a pending immigration case, or you're worried about your status as an undocumented immigrant in general, contact an experienced immigration attorney who can advise you on your rights and legal options going forward.