The backlog of pending cases in immigration court reached an all-time high in the month of June. According to records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the Transactions Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University the immigration court backlog jumped by about 11,000 cases in one month, reaching a record high of 610,524. The TRAC report also detected a 9.3 percent drop in final dispositions issued in immigration court cases since President Trump took office, decreasing from 84,956 over a five-month period last year to 77,085 over that same time frame this year. The TRAC report breaks down the backlog by state and then court within that state and provides numerous graphs to help create a visual image of the drastic increase in pending cases since the mid-2000’s. It can be found here.
The increase in backlog and decrease in final dispositions could be attributed to a number of variables. These include recent shifts in judge assignments, revised case processing priorities, and the almost complete end of prosecutorial discretion in closing cases. The use of prosecutorial discretion had helped lessen the court’s backlog in recent years; however, the number of cases pending in courts nationwide has been steadily increasing since about 2008. Prosecutorial discretion has been essentially handcuffed by the current administration and ICE has even started reopening cases that had been closed for years under previous priority hierarchies.
President Trump allocated additional funds to the Department of Homeland Security in his May budget proposal and there has been talk of hiring additional judges and support staff. Since the backlog has been increasing for almost a decade and high numbers of judges have been hired and trained in recent years, it is unlikely that throwing more judges into the mix will have any meaningful impact on the backlog because of the rate that people are being put in proceedings and because old cases are being reopened.
Our office recently had an individual hearing postponed from December 2017 until May 2020. If something is not done to prioritize cases more effectively and provide for a shorter start to finish timeline for non-detained individuals, then efforts at increasing border security and discouraging people from overstaying their visas will not be able to overcome the current culture of “press you luck”. Word will get around that a person who gets put in proceedings and applies for relief can remain and wait in the U.S. for an additional two years, five years, ten years, who knows. What incentive does a person have to return to his or her home country if our current laws, policies, and outrageous backlog will allow that person to remain here for an almost indefinite period of time? Now, each case presents its own issues and a person’s immigration and criminal history may dictate whether he or she lingers in proceedings for years or is sent back to his or her home country on a bus or plane the next day. However, if our overarching goals are to create a set of immigration laws that encourage and reward compliance and to ensure that our borders are being respected—we have a mountain of over 610,000 cases to climb before we get there.