Immigration judges facing a backlog of cases by the thousands

Backlogged court cases for illegal immigrants have skyrocketed to a ratio of 1,456 per judge, slowing down the government’s processing of cases and pushing some deportation cases off to be settled years away. According to an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), in some immigration courts, judges have been forced to schedule cases as far out as February 2022.

Looking at the 58 immigration courts that employ about 300 judges, an audit agency tabulated 437,000 pending cases, double the amount from 2006. The wait time for an illegal immigrant to face a judge has gone from 198 days to a staggering 404 days.

CIS analyzed a 153-page assessment released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). One section they highlight reveals the backlog issue:

“As of February 2, 2017, half of courts had master calendar hearings scheduled as far as January 2018 or beyond and had individual merits hearings, during which immigration judges generally render case decisions, scheduled as far as June 2018 or beyond. However, the range of hearing dates varied; as of February 2, 2017, one court had master calendar hearings scheduled no further than March 2017 while another court had master calendar hearings scheduled in May 2021, more than 4 years in the future. Similarly, courts varied in the extent to which individual merits hearings were scheduled into the future. As of February 2, 2017, one court had individual hearings scheduled out no further than March 2017 while another court had scheduled individual hearings 5 years into the future, February 2022.”

According to the CIS analysis, the increase in pending cases is due to courts taking “much longer to get through individual cases.” CIS fellow and former Immigration and Naturalization Service counsel Andrew R. Arthur says that the GAO assessment reveals that immigration court cases completed annually declined by 31 percent. In fiscal year 2006, 287,000 cases were completed. Yet in 2015, only about 199,000 were completed.

Arthur says that “the number of immigration judges increased by 17 percent” over the same 10-year period. He suggests the backlog may be the result of the immigration judges granting “multiple case continuances.” He says it’s logical since, as the GAO noted, “cases that experience more continuances take longer to complete.”

Arthur pulled out the following facts:

  • After reviewing 3.7 million continuance records from FY 2006 through FY 2015, GAO concluded that continuances increased by 23 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2015 with ‘the percentage of completed cases which had multiple continuances’ also increasing during that period.
  • Most critically, the cases in which the largest number of continuances that GAO identified were issued, those with ‘four or more continuances,’ increased from 9 percent of cases completed in FY 2006 to 20 percent of cases completed in FY 2015.
  • Those continuances made an impact, as GAO found: ‘[C]ases that were completed in [FY] 2015 and had no continuances took an average of 175 days to complete. In contrast, cases with four or more continuances took an average of 929 days to complete’ that year.

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