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James McHenry, Trump-era head of immigration courts, to step down

Biden reversing Trump immigration policies
Biden administration gets to work on reversing Trump-era immigration policies 08:08

James McHenry, who led the U.S. immigration court system for much of the Trump administration, will step down from his role at the helm of the Justice Department branch this weekend, according to a memo obtained by CBS News and two people who were notified of the announcement.

McHenry's departure from the top position at the Executive Office for Immigration Review — which will take effect Sunday — comes as the Biden administration has been replacing top government officials who shepherded major Trump-era immigration restrictions.

First appointed as acting director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review in May 2017, McHenry was tapped to lead the agency on a permanent basis in January 2018. In four years, he played a key role in restricting immigration judges' ability to grant asylum, as well as their discretion to close cases and suspend deportation proceedings for certain immigrants.

McHenry's office also joined the Department of Homeland Security in issuing numerous rules narrowing asylum eligibility and implementing the Trump administration's policies to deter would-be migrants from heading to the southern border, including a program that required 70,000 Latin American asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearings.

Immigration advocates, lawyers and even immigration judges also accused McHenry of politicizing the immigration court system and stripping it of meaningful independence. As a Justice Department agency, the immigration court system is part of the executive branch and its policies are dictated by political appointees, including the attorney general, who can issue precedent-setting orders governing case law for asylum and deportations. 

McHenry will remain at the Justice Department as the chief administrative hearing officer. Jean King, who currently serves as the chief administrative law judge, will take his place at the helm of the immigration court system on Sunday, according to the internal memo. BuzzFeed News first reported the leadership change.

The U.S. immigration court system's backlog of cases has ballooned in recent years, with nearly 1.3 million pending adjudications as of last month, according to government data compiled by researchers at Syracuse University.

President Biden has pledged to double the number of immigration judges, staff and interpreters to reduce the massive backlog.

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