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January 18, 2017

Immigration Court Backlog Continues to Grow

New York City—Human Rights First today reiterated its calls for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to hire additional immigration judges and for Congress to support increased immigration court staffing, in light of new data released this week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) that shows an all-time high backlog of 533,909 pending cases.               

“Unless concrete action is taken to reduce the immigration court backlog it will continue to rise at unsustainable rates, negatively impacting the lives of those seeking protection from persecution and violence,” said Human Rights First’s Shaw Drake. “The delays have left hundreds of thousands of individuals, particularly women and their children, in limbo and undermine access to pro bono counsel. The immigration courts’ staffing imbalance has been left unaddressed for years; it is long past time to address this escalating threat to fair and effective process.” 

The DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which contains the immigration courts, currently faces over 533,900 pending cases and a long-standing severe gap in immigration judge and support staff. The most recent analysis to provide predictions of case wait times, conducted by TRAC in August 2015, found that the immigration court backlogs have caused delays lasting over three years on average—and five to six years in the most backlogged courts.  With the continued growth of backlogged cases wait times have likely proportionally ballooned.

In a report published last year, Human Rights First found that absent significant increases in the number of immigration judges backlogged cases would rise by a minimum of 25,000 cases per year. The significant uptick in backlogged cases in recent months is in line with our analysis of a court system unable to handle its current workload and that will continue to experience significant backlogs until adequate resources are allocated. Despite increases in cases involving women and children, the overall number of cases entering the immigration courts has remained stable over the past several years. The backlog faced by the court results from chronic underfunding and a steady incremental growth over years. 

Leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle have long called for increases to immigration court staff to address the backlog. Human Rights First recommends:

  • The Department of Justice should move ahead with hiring of the currently funded 374 immigration judge positions, which includes about 78 vacant immigration judge positions, and accompanying support staff positions.
  • The administration should request congressional funding for an additional 150 immigration judges, and the White House should prioritize this funding in its budget requests to Congress, for Fiscal Year 2017. Congress should support this increase.
  • The Department of Justice should maintain strong safeguards against politicized or ideologically driven hiring, and should avoid initiatives that short-circuit fairness. Past efforts to press adjudicators to rush cases or meet unrealistic and arbitrary targets or deadlines have subverted fair process and ultimately proven counterproductive.  
  • The Department of Justice and/or EOIR should provide individuals who are facing pressing humanitarian difficulties, including asylum seekers with derivative family members abroad, the opportunity to have their cases heard without delay. Providing individuals with spouses or children living abroad—often in dangerous or life-threatening conditions—the opportunity to secure timely consideration of their cases would minimize some of the harm created by the systemic immigration court delays.

For more information see Human Rights First reports: Lifeline on Lockdown and In the Balance. To speak with Drake please contact Corinne Duffy at [email protected] or 202-370-3319.