(CNN)Attorney General Merrick Garland has announced the appointment of David Neal to lead the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts.
Neal previously served on the panel for two decades before departing under the Trump administration when a number of immigration judges resigned in response to the administration’s policies.
The decision of an immigration judge on a case determines whether an individual can remain in the United States or will be deported. For example, migrants who claim asylum will ultimately have that claim approved or denied by a judge. The process, though, can take months, if not years. Immigration judges are currently facing a backlog of more than one million cases.
“The Justice Department’s commitment to a fair and efficient immigration court system, governed by due process and the rule of law, is exemplified by recent policy changes and our pursuit of significant additional resources,” Garland said in a statement. “David Neal brings invaluable experience that will help further EOIR’s mission.”
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency within the Justice Department, carries important influence on immigration issues. Under the Trump administration, the agency imposed case quotas, gave more power to the director charged with overseeing the courts, reversed rulings, curtailed judges’ ability to exercise discretion in some cases and moved to decertify the union of immigration judges.
Neal will assume the helm of the nation’s immigration court system at a time when the Biden administration is wrestling with increasing arrivals at the US-Mexico border and seeking to reform a system that’s been plagued with issues. There are more than 60 immigration courts in the United States, and about 500 judges.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department reversed two Trump-era immigration decisions that narrowed who could qualify for asylum, including an opinion that removed some protections for victims of domestic violence and gang violence.
Garland vacated two iterations of the decision known as “Matter of A-B” — a decision made by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018 that set a high bar for victims of crime to qualify for asylum, saying that victims must show that their home country was unable or unwilling to assist them and that “the government condoned the private actions.”
At issue was part of asylum law that protects members of a “particular social group” who are victims of persecution. Prior to the Trump administration, immigration courts held that women in Central America facing domestic abuse qualified. But during his tenure as attorney general, Sessions said that was no longer the case, effectively narrowing what the government considers grounds for asylum.
The attorney general, who has authority to set precedent in these cases, also vacated a decision issued by his predecessor Attorney General William Barr that limited whether family constitutes a “particular social group” for asylum claims.