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Sessions limits U.S. judges' ability to dismiss deportation cases

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SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced new limits on the ability of immigration judges to terminate deportation cases on Wednesday, the latest in a series of decisions to facilitate the removal of immigrants in the country illegally.

Unlike the federal judiciary system, U.S. immigration courts fall under the Department of Justice and the attorney general can rewrite opinions issued by the Board of Immigration Appeals. Sessions, a Republican former U.S. senator appointed by President Donald Trump, has been unusually active in this practice compared to his predecessors.

In his most recent decision, Sessions said judges can only terminate or dismiss cases in “specific and circumscribed” circumstances. Judges “have no inherent authority to terminate removal proceedings even though a particular case may pose sympathetic circumstances,” he said.

The decision laid out specific circumstances under which immigration judges can terminate deportation proceedings, including in cases where the government cannot prove its case for removal. Judges can also terminate proceedings if the government asks for a dismissal or to allow an immigrant time for a final hearing on a pending petition for naturalization when the matter involves “exceptionally appealing or humanitarian factors.”

Having a deportation case terminated does not confer legal status on an immigrant, but it does give them time to pursue other avenues of remaining in the country legally. The Department of Homeland Security can place immigrants whose cases are dismissed back into deportation proceedings with a new charging document.

“The decision is the next step in a concerted effort by the A.G. to undermine judicial independence and to minimize the role of judges in immigration court,” said Kate Voigt, associate director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association.

Dana Leigh Marks, president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the decision “shows again the amount of pressure being applied to judges to move cases forward toward removal as quickly as possible.”

The Department of Justice declined to comment.

Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Reade Levinson in New York; Editing by Tom Brown