The workload of the federal immigration court system has increased by 146% to an astonishing 453,948 active cases at the end of July. The average amount of time those cases have been pending: 627 days. Some cases have even lingered for years.
The reason for this vast backlog is clear. The government has failed to increase the capacity of the immigration court system that hears deportation cases just as much as it has poured money into enhancing border security. The number of border agents has nearly doubled to 21,000 in the last decade.
The consequences of such an overwhelmed system are wide-ranging. Undocumented individuals who are in the country get lengthy temporary postponements simply because the judges can’t get to their cases. Individuals with legitimate claims to asylum are left twisting in the wind. The longer a case is dragged out, the more difficult it becomes to verify or refute an individual’s claim. The judges face significant stress and burnout. They handle an average of 1,400 cases each per year, more than twice the caseload for Social Security and Veterans Affairs administrative law judges. Judges being under such pressure complain about not having enough time to research legal points in the immigration laws, which rival tax codes for complexity.
Immigration judges are a part of the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, whose current budget includes 319 judicial positions, and only 247 of those are filled. President Obama has asked for an additional 55 “judge teams” (a judge and seven court staffers) in the upcoming budget. Despite these intentions, advocates say that the increase would be insufficient to clear the backlog and stay ahead of the constant flow of new cases – well over 200,000 a year.
Congress’ failure to overhaul the nation’s immigration system has been long-running. But it takes courts and judges to do that, and without proper staffing, Congress has set up the system to fail.