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May 16, 2014

Congress Should Continue to Address Resource Deficiency in Immigration Courts

Immigration courts nationwide are facing a computer hardware failure that started April 12, leaving judges, immigrants, and attorneys in the dark on case schedules.  But that’s only one of the problems in immigration courts, where there are over 360,000 pending cases and only 249 immigration court judges to decide them.

Dana Leigh Marks, head of the union for immigration judge union said it’s extremely difficult to function without a working computer system, and Attorney General Holder has addressed the issue. In remarks on Tuesday he said, “We have in our 2015 budget request a substantial increase in the amount of money that would come to the immigration courts. We have asked for more immigration judges. We are concerned about the IT systems, the information technology systems that are there, failures that have occurred in that regard.” No one knows yet how many more cases may be backlogged or delayed, an additional burden on asylum seekers who often spend years waiting for their cases to move through the system.

Immigration courts also suffer from insufficient support staff, law clerks, and resources, and 90 immigration judges will soon be eligible for retirement. To address the multi-year long backlogs, more funding is needed.

Hope may be in sight. The House Appropriations Committee Commerce Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill voted through last week would increase funding for the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the immigration courts. The CJS bill is a first step toward bringing much-needed resources to the immigration courts. In its report on the bill the committee recommended that the government allocate $335 million dollars to EOIR. This is an increase from the $312 million appropriated for the current fiscal year, but still falls below the President’s budget proposal of $347.2 million. And so, while the amount included in the House bill is a start, the Senate should appropriate at least the $347.2 million requested by the president in his FY 2015 Budget Request.

The committee report also commended EOIR on its Legal Orientation Program (LOP), which allows some detained individuals to receive critical legal orientation presentations, and other programs. These services “improve the efficiency of the court system, reduce court costs, and help ensure fairness and due process.” Given LOP’s track record, it’s imperative that the Senate also provide for an increase in funding.

The House Appropriations Committee vote and bill represent a bipartisan effort to improve the fairness and efficiency of our immigration court system, but more is needed. As the Senate takes up appropriations bills in the next month, it has an opportunity to further address the problem.