(AP) -- U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland tossed a Trump administration policy Thursday that barred immigration judges from putting off the deportation cases of immigrants waiting on green cards and visas.
Garland overruled a decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that judges could not temporarily shelve those cases -- a practice known as administrative closure.
Immigration judges, who are employees of Garland's Department of Justice, said the practice helps them manage their dockets more efficiently by letting them focus on cases that are ready to go to court and avoid dragging in immigrants and attorneys for unnecessary hearings. That's critical in a backlogged system where immigrants already wait years to get a court date.
"It helps us clear our dockets so we're dealing with cases that are really ready for hearings," said Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president emerita and executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
For many immigrants, administrative closure was seen as a lifeline that shielded them from deportation while they awaited word on their applications for legal status from other agencies, such as green cards or other visas. Critics said immigration judges too often let people stay in the country longer than they should in a sort of legal purgatory.
The decision is one of several recent Biden administration reversals of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies. Last month, Garland ended two policies that made it harder for immigrants fleeing violence to qualify for asylum.
In the decision on immigration judges, Garland wrote that three federal appeals courts had already rejected Sessions' 2018 policy, saying the judges had the authority to decide how they wanted to handle cases. The Justice Department, which runs the immigration courts, is making rules related to administrative closure and will allow the practice in the meantime, the attorney general wrote.
During the Trump administration, the number of cases in the immigration courts surged, partly as some of the hundreds of thousands of cases that had been put on hold were added back on the court calendar following Sessions' decision.
Since the 2018 fiscal year, the number of cases pending in the immigration courts has risen 74%, to 1.3 million, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Gene Hamilton, a key architect of many of Trump's immigration policies who served in the Justice Department, said he believes Garland's decision will let immigrants stay in the country indefinitely despite facing deportation.
But immigration judges said they can only use the practice in a limited number of cases and that it makes the courts more efficient, not less. Without it, some immigrants have wound up filing applications for asylum or appeal simply to buy more time while waiting on their green card application, Marks said.
"It clutters up the system with unnecessary filings and unnecessary hearings," she said.
The move also restores autonomy to the country's immigration judges over how they manage their dockets, said Jeremy McKinney, president elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Immigration judges clashed repeatedly with the Trump administration, decrying measures they said limited their independence.
"To say the immigration judges never possessed this power was simply ridiculous," McKinney said.