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July 07, 2016

Reducing the Immigration Court Backlog and Delays

THE IMMIGRATION court system within the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is in a state of crisis. EOIR is currently managing the largest caseload the system has ever seen.Over 492,000 immigration removal cases are now pending in the U.S. immigration courts, with cases waiting an average of 1,071 days for their day in court.The caseload more than doubled between 2010 and 2016, from 223,707 to 492,978.

The immigration court system is widely recognized to be overstretched, backlogged, and underfunded, with its resources lagging far behind those provided to the front-line enforcement arms of the immigration system. A wide range of experts and former government officials have long recognized the need to address this gap. Both the American Bar Association and the Administrative Conference of the United States have expressed concern that the immigration courts do not have the resources necessary to deal with their caseloads.3 In January 2015, The Wall Street Journal and other media reported on immigration court delays and the re-calendaring of non-priority (non-detained and non-border) cases for hearings in late November 2019—nearly five years down the road. Editorials in the Houston Chronicle, The Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, Bloomberg Views, The New York Times, and the LA Times highlight the growing backlog and the need for additional funds for more judges.

These delays leave asylum seekers and other immigrants, waiting years for their day in court. The delays also prolong the separation of refugee families—by years—leaving the children and spouses of some refugees stranded in dangerous situations abroad while they await a grant of asylum. The backlogs resulting from insufficient staffing and resources can also undermine the integrity of the system by allowing individuals who have no claim to relief to stay in the country for years while awaiting a court date, exposing the system to potential abuse. A 2015 poll, conducted for Human Rights First by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, confirms that over three-quarters of voters in the most closely watched Congressional Districts believe that Congress should “increase the number of judges who serve on immigration courts in order to help ensure fair and timely immigration hearings for those who are fleeing persecution from other countries.”

Recommendation

Add 150 Immigration Judges, and Support Staff, to Reduce Delays and Backlog. To handle the incoming removal caseload and reduce the backlog, the immigration courts will need a total of 524 immigration judge teams. In addition to the funding for 55 teams added in Fiscal Year 2016, an additional 75 immigration judge teams should be added each year for two fiscal years, for a total of 150 additional teams. This overdue right-sizing of the immigration courts would cost about $150 million and would constitute a wise investment in the effectiveness, fairness, and timeliness of the immigration removal system. With this additional infusion of staff, funding for the immigration courts would still amount to only about 4.10 percent of the overall $18.5 billion immigration enforcement budget.

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