TRAC Report: Case Backlog Continues to Grow at U.S. Immigration Courts

The U.S. government is working hard to clear the backlog of pending cases currently clogging our immigration courts, hiring 44 new Immigration Judges in the past 12 months, but this apparently is not enough. Their efforts are laudable, but nonetheless have failed to reduce the backlog significantly, according to a recent report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a government watchdog group at Syracuse University. (See New Judge Hiring Fails to Stem Rising Immigration Case Backlog, TRAC Immigration, 07.Jun.2011.)

According to TRAC Immigration, the hiring was long overdue – a belated backfilling of judicial positions that should have been occupied years earlier; TRAC notes that “many of the judge vacancies filled had been open since at least 2006.” Going forward, there is reason for concern, too. TRAC points to the recent testimony of incoming EOIR Director, Juan Osuna, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which Osuna cautioned that budget cuts have caused a hiring freeze for new Immigration Judges, a situation likely to be exacerbated by “normal attrition,” through which the system loses about ten judges per year.

TRAC‘s analysis of public records showed that, by May of 2011, “the number of cases awaiting resolution before the Immigration Courts reached a new all-time high of 275,316,” and that “the case backlog has continued to grow – up 2.8 percent –  since TRAC‘s previous report four months ago.”

The problem? Fewer judges means longer wait times for those whose immigration cases land in court. However, TRAC‘s research makes clear that wait times are far from uniform, and vary considerably based on the nationality of the applicants, and the location of the Immigration Court. Among the TRAC reports findings:

Wait Times by State: Wait times continue to be longest in California with 660 days, up from 639 days four months ago. Massachusetts average wait times increased from 615 to 617 days over the same time period. Utah moved up to third place with an average time of 537 days cases have been waiting in the Salt Lake City Immigration Court – up from 472 at the time of our previous report.

Wait Times by Nationality: Among nationalities, and limiting comparisons to the 50 countries with the most individuals in queue, Armenians with cases pending before the Immigration Courts currently still have the longest wait time of 896 days – almost twice the national average of 482 days. Other nationalities within the top five in terms of the length [of time] their cases had been pending were Indonesia (832), Albania (667), Iran (640), and Pakistan (630).”

The TRAC report also found that several Immigration Courts had exceptionally high rates of growth in their caseloads; the top five were San Antonio (up a whopping 26 percent this year), New Orleans (up 20 percent), Phoenix (up 19 percent), Oakdale, Louisiana (up 19percent), and Houston (up 18 percent).

The news was not universally grim. Among the bright spots, according to TRAC, is the fact that several courts experienced sharp declines in their case backlogs in the first seven months of fiscal year 2011, among them: Lumpkin, Georgia (backlog down 63 percent), New York Detention Center (down 40 percent), Houston Detained Court (down 25 percent), Guaynabo, Puerto Rico (down 24 percent), and Salt Lake City (down 10 percent).

As we have observed before, a smoothly functioning immigration system is a public good – one upon which our economic and social wellbeing depends. The system should not be forced to go begging when there is clear need for increased funding. One hopes Congress will carefully consider devoting more tax revenues to our Immigration Court system, so the courts will have the resources – financial as well as human – to get the job done without undue delays. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.