Between the 2003 and 2015 fiscal years, backlogs in immigration courts increased by more than 160 percent, a recent American Immigration Council (AIC) report found. That’s largely because moderate increases in court resources did not keep pace with increased immigration enforcement, as funding for enforcement skyrocketed from $9.1 billion to $18.7 billion.
By the end of the 2014 fiscal year, the report found that immigration judges were assigned to “1,400 ‘matters’ per year on average — far more than federal judges (566 cases per year in 2011), or Social Security administrative law judges (544 hearings per year in 2007). Some judges reportedly have over 3,000 cases on their docket.” During this time, more cases were filed than were completed, with courts receiving 23 percent more matters than they completed in the 2014 fiscal year.
The current backlog of cases stands at 445,706 cases with many immigrants receiving a “parking date” for a hearing on November 29, 2019. That date could be moved again.
Immigration courts were overloaded last summer as judges prioritized the caseloads of more than 68,000 Latin American children fleeing from gang violence and poverty. The so-called “rocket docket” focused on fast adjudication, a process that advocates criticized as they scrambled to find legal representation for the children. That group of migrants make up about 15.7 percent of the current backlog. But as David Leopold, the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), noted to ThinkProgress, “backlogs were a problem even before the border surge last year.”
One factor that placed a greater burden on the immigration courts was the federal government shutdown in October 2013, during which at least 37,000 immigration hearings were delayed by months or even years.
And there are other reasons that the backlog could increase even further in the future. At least 100 immigration judges are eligible to retire this year. There are currently 233 immigration judges nationwide, with 212 judges serving full-time, and about ten judges retire every year through natural attrition. The burnout rate among immigration judges is high — a 2009 University of California at San Francisco study found that they face greater job burnout and secondary traumatic stress than prison wardens and doctors.
The Los Angeles Times reported that 17 new immigration judges are expected to start this month, with 68 more in the process of being hired. While the increase in hires comes as a comfort to some, advocates still insist that Congress needs to at least double the number of immigration judges, something the 2013 Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill would have mandated.
The backlog has implications beyond burdening the court system. As Leopold explained, “justice delayed is keep[ing] people from having their cases heard and, in many cases, from earning a living.” That’s because some immigrants are not legally allowed to work until their cases are heard. For instance, one Syrian family in the United States is “in a state of paralysis or suspense” because they can’t work until their case has been heard. Their case is scheduled for 2019.
There are a couple of silver linings to the situation. In 2013, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security reached an agreement to allow asylum seekers whose cases have been pending for more than six months to apply for employment authorization. And the Obama administration requested an additional $64 million in its 2016 fiscal year budget.