Jeff Sessions Is Hijacking Immigration Law

How the attorney general is abusing a rarely used provision to rewrite legal precedent.

Photo illustration: Attorney General Jeff Sessions looking down against a background of written script.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images, Library of Congress.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a group of immigration judges that while they are responsible for “ensur[ing] that our immigration system operates in a manner that is consistent with the laws,” Congress alone is responsible for rewriting those laws. Sessions then announced that he would be issuing a unilateral decision regarding asylum cases later in the day, a decision he told the judges would “provide more clarity” and help them “rule consistently and fairly.” The decision in Matter of A-B-, which came down shortly after his remarks, reverses asylum protections for victims of domestic violence and other persecution.

During his speech Sessions framed his decision in Matter of A-B- as a “correct interpretation of the law” that “advances the original intent” of our immigration statute. As a matter of law, Sessions’ decision is disturbing. It’s also alarming that this case ended up in front of the attorney general to begin with. Sessions is abusing a rarely used provision to rewrite our immigration laws—a function the attorney general himself said should be reserved for Congress. His zealous self-referral of immigration cases has been devastatingly effective. Sessions is quietly gutting immigration law, and there’s nothing stopping him from continuing to use this loophole to implement more vindictive changes.

Normally, an immigration judge is the first to hear and decide an immigration case. If the case is appealed, it goes in front of the Board of Immigration Appeals before being heard by a federal circuit court. In a peculiarity of immigration law, however, the attorney general is permitted to pluck cases straight from the Board of Immigration Appeals for personal review and adjudication. Sessions, who was famously denied a federal judgeship in 1986 because of accusations that he’d made racist comments, now seems to be indulging a lingering judicial fantasy by exploiting this provision to the fullest. Since January 2018, Sessions has referred four immigration cases to himself for adjudication, putting him on track to be one of the most prolific users of the self-referral provision since 1956, when attorneys general stopped regularly reviewing and affirming BIA cases. By comparison, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch certified a total four cases between them during the Obama administration.

Sessions is not using these cases to resolve novel legal issues or to ease the workload of DHS attorneys or immigration judges. Instead, he is using the self-referral mechanism to adjudicate cases that have the most potential to limit the number of people granted legal status in the United States, and he’s disregarding the procedural requirements set up to control immigration appeals in the process.

A close look at the Matter of A-B- case shows exactly how far out of bounds Sessions is willing to go. Matter of A-B- began when Ms. A-B- arrived in the United States from El Salvador seeking asylum. Ms. A-B- had been the victim of extreme brutality at the hands of her husband in El Salvador, including violent attacks and threats on her life. The local police did nothing to protect her. When it became clear it was only a matter of time before her husband tried to hurt her again, Ms. A-B- fled to the United States. Upon her arrival at the U.S. border, Ms. A-B- was detained in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her asylum case was set to be heard by Judge Stuart Couch, a notoriously asylum-averse judge who is especially resentful of claims based on domestic violence.

During her trial, Ms. A-B- testified about the persecution she’d faced at the hands of her husband and provided additional evidence to corroborate her claims. Despite the extensive evidence, Judge Couch found Ms. A-B-’s story was not credible and rejected her asylum claim. Ms. A-B- then appealed her case to the BIA. There, the board unanimously found that Ms. A-B-’s testimony was in fact credible and that she met the requirements for asylum. Per their protocol, the BIA did not grant Ms. A-B- asylum itself but rather sent the case back down to Judge Couch, who was tasked with performing the required background checks on Ms. A-B- and then issuing a grant of asylum in accordance with their decision.

Judge Couch, however, did not issue Ms. A-B- a grant of asylum, even after the Department of Homeland Security completed her background checks. Instead, he improperly tried to send the case back to the BIA without issuing a new decision, apparently because he was personally unconvinced of the “legal validity” of asylum claims based on domestic violence. Before the BIA touched the case again, Attorney General Sessions decided he ought to adjudicate it himself.

After taking the case, Sessions asked for amicus briefs on the question of “whether … being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable ‘particular social group’ for purposes of an application for asylum.” The question of whether private criminal activity like domestic violence can in some instances lead to a grant of asylum had not been at issue in Matter of A-B-. The issue raised in Ms. A-B-’s case was whether her claims were credible, not whether asylum was available for victims of private criminal activity. In fact, persecution at the hand of a private actor who the government cannot or will not control is contemplated in the asylum statute itself and has been recognized as a grounds for asylum for decades. The question of whether domestic violence could sometimes warrant asylum also appeared to be firmly settled in a 2014 case known as Matter of A-R-C-G-.

The question the attorney general was seeking to answer was actually so settled that the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for prosecuting immigration cases, submitted a timid brief to Sessions politely suggesting that he reconsider his decision to take on this case. “This matter does not appear to be in the best posture for the Attorney General’s review,” its brief argued, before outright acknowledging that the question of whether private criminal activity can form the basis of an asylum claim had already been clearly answered by the BIA. The attorney general, despite his alleged desire to simplify the jobs of immigration prosecutors and judges, ignored DHS’s concerns and denied the agency’s motion. “[BIA] precedent,” Sessions wrote in his denial, “does not bind my ultimate decision in this matter.” Sessions, in short, was going to rewrite asylum law whether DHS liked it or not.

Sessions not only ignored DHS concerns about the case but, as 16 former immigration judges pointed out in their amicus brief, trampled over several crucial procedural requirements in his zeal to shut off asylum eligibility for vulnerable women. First, he failed to require Couch, the original presiding judge, to make a final decision before sending the case back to the BIA. The regulations controlling immigration appeals allow an immigration judge to send a case to the BIA only after a decision has been issued by the original judge. Next, Sessions failed to wait for the BIA to adjudicate the case before snapping it up for his personal analysis. Even if Judge Couch hadn’t improperly sent the case back to the BIA, Sessions was obligated to wait for the BIA to decide the case before intervening. The self-referral provision permits the attorney general to review BIA decisions, not cases that are merely awaiting adjudication.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the question Sessions sought to answer in this case, namely “whether … being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable ‘particular social group’ for purposes of an application for asylum” was not a question considered by any court in Matter of A-B-. Rather, it was one Sessions seemingly lifted directly from hardline immigration restrictionists, knowing that the answer had the potential to all but eliminate domestic violence–based asylum claims.

On June 11, after receiving 11 amicus briefs in support of asylum-seekers like Ms. A-B- and only one against, the attorney general ruled that private activity is not grounds for asylum, including in cases of domestic violence. Ms. A-B-’s case, in Sessions’ hands, became a vehicle by which to rewrite our asylum laws without waiting on Congress.

The attorney general’s other self-referred decisions are likewise plagued by questionable procedure. In Matter of E-F-H-L-, Sessions seized on a case from 2014 as an opportunity undo the longstanding requirement that asylum applicants be given the opportunity for a hearing. Like in Matter of A-B-, Sessions did procedural somersaults to insert himself into Matter of E-F-H-L-, using a recent decision by the immigration judge in the case to close the proceedings without deciding the asylum claim as grounds to toss out the original BIA ruling on the right to a hearing. Without so much as a single phone call to Congress, Sessions effectively rescinded the requirement that asylum seekers are entitled to full hearings. He also mandated that the judge reopen Mr. E-F-H-L-’s case years after he thought he was safe from deportation.

In Matter of Castro-Tum, a case Sessions referred to himself in January, he used his powers to make life more difficult for both immigrants and immigration judges by banning the use of “administrative closure” in removal proceedings. Administrative closure allowed immigration judges to choose to take cases off their dockets, indefinitely pausing removal proceedings. In Matter of Castro-Tum, Sessions made a new rule that sharply curtails the use of the practice and allows DHS prosecutors to ask that judges reschedule old closed cases. The result? The potential deportation of more than 350,000 immigrants whose cases were previously closed. In addition, judges now have so many hearings on their dockets that they are scheduling trials in 2020.

As CLINIC, an immigration advocacy group, pointed out, Sessions appeared be using his decision in Matter of Castro-Tum to improperly develop a new rule on when judges can administratively close immigration cases. Normally, such a new rule would need to go through a fraught bureaucratic process under the Administrative Procedures Act before being implemented. Instead of going through that lengthy process, however, Sessions simply decreed the new rule in his decision, bypassing all the usual procedural requirements.

The cases that Sessions has chosen to decide and the procedural leaps he’s taken to adjudicate them show that his goal is to ensure that fewer people are permitted to remain in the United States, Congress be damned. So far, his plan seems to be working. As a result of Sessions’ decision in Matter of A-B-, thousands of women—including many of the women who are currently detained after having their children torn from their arms at our border—will be shut out of asylum proceedings and deported to their countries of origin to await death at the hands of their abusers.

While Sessions’ decisions trump BIA precedent, they do not override precedent set by the federal circuit courts on immigration matters, much of which contradicts the findings he’s made in his decisions. While immigration attorneys are scrambling to protect their clients with creative new advocacy strategies, the only real way to stop Sessions’ massacre is to listen to him when he says Congress needs to fix our immigration laws. In doing so, the legislative branch could not only revise our immigration system to offer meaningful paths to legal status for those currently shut out of the system, but could eliminate the needless attorney general review provision altogether and force Sessions to keep his hands out of immigration case law.