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The immigration courts work somewhat differently from other courts in the U.S. Rather than being independent and staffed by judges who base their authority on a constitutional mandate, they are considered part of the Department of Justice and are staffed by administrative law judges. That means that the head of the DOJ -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- has a certain amount authority over immigration judges.

One thing he can do is overturn their rulings when they affect immigration policy. Attorney General Sessions has recently done just that, intervening in two key cases. His goals, he says, are to cut down on a massive backlog of asylum cases and to crack down on "rampant abuse and fraud" in the system.

An asylum hearing will not necessarily be granted

Earlier this month, he vacated a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that said most people seeking asylum in the U.S. have the right to a hearing before their asylum claim can be turned down. Judges can now simply reject asylum petitions that seem fraudulent or unlikely to succeed. It only requires an initial review.

Critics of the now-vacated ruling say it was gumming up the system by requiring hearings for people with little to no chance for success. However, some 20 percent of asylum applicants initially file petitions without a lawyer's help. Limiting their right to a hearing could easily result in deserving people being sent back into life-threatening situations.

Indeed, the ruling itself called hearings "an essential aspect of the asylum adjudication process for reasons related to fairness . . . and to the integrity of the asylum process itself."

Not every victim of crime in their home country is eligible for asylum in the U.S. To qualify for asylum, the person needs, at least, a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership in a particular social group -- and no chance for help from their own government.

It's certainly true that there is a huge backlog of asylum cases in the system. Applications for asylum have skyrocketed in recent years as women and children flee violence in Central America. There are more than 600,000 cases pending -- three times the number in 2009.

Sessions perceives this as the result of undeserving people gaming the system. An immigration professor at New York Law School calls the violence in Central America a "global situation" that is forcing people out of the region.

Will limiting the number of asylum cases that receive hearings make the system more efficient? Some say that reducing judges' time spent on unlikely cases will free them up to help more deserving people.

"You don't make the system more efficient by taking away people's due process rights," argues a spokesperson for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Instead, trying to take away those rights will probably flood the courts with litigation.

Another change may put barriers in the path of domestic violence victims

Sessions is also considering whether victims of so-called "private crime" actually qualify for asylum in the U.S. Some immigration activists fear that Sessions will make it harder for victims of domestic or personal violence to qualify for asylum.

"They are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society," said the American Immigration Lawyers Association spokesperson. "To have their rights curtailed so that the system moves faster I think should be considered a moral outrage."

If you or someone you love is seeking asylum in the U.S., you may feel desperate or even hopeless. There is help available. Contact the Yew Immigration Law Group for a complimentary consultation about your options.

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