Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday (May 17) issued a directive barring immigration judges from pausing deportation cases while immigrants await visa applications or appeals to criminal convictions, a commonly used tactic known as administrative closure that previously allowed judges to clear low priority cases.

Widely used during the Obama administration, administrative closure gave judges flexibility on cases involving immigrants who had lived in the country for several years and whose children or spouses are United States citizens. It also freed up judges to focus on higher priority cases.

Sessions, however, argued that judges don’t have the authority to suspend cases. The tactic, he said, allows immigrants of undocumented status to remain in the country indefinitely while their cases are shelved. In the order, Sessions writes:

I hold that immigration judges and the Board [of Immigration Appeals] do not have the general authority to suspend indefinitely immigration proceedings by administrative closure. In recent years, immigration judges and the Board have increasingly ordered administrative closure to remove a large number of cases from their dockets. Although described as a temporary suspension, administrative closure is effectively permanent in most instances. 

The New York Times reports that the decision could place hundreds of shelved cases back on court dockets. 

Immigration advocates criticized the directive as the latest hard-line measure by an administration intent on influencing immigration courts.

“Sessions is using his authority as attorney general to turn the immigration courts into a deportation assembly line, with ICE officers waiting at the exits with open handcuffs in hand,” David W. Leopold, an immigration attorney, told The New York Times, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In March, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a set of production quotas for immigration judges aimed as fast-tracking deportations. The directive, due to take effect in October, will require that judges in immigration courts clear 700 cases annually or face negative performance reviews.

The quotas are a way to “encourage efficient and effective case management while preserving immigration judge discretion and due process,” James McHenry, director of the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review wrote to immigration judges.

But a union representing immigration judges said the move will force judges to rush cases through the system while threatening judicial independence.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told the The Wall Street Journal at the time.