The average time for a case to wend its way through South Florida’s hopelessly backlogged federal immigration courts is 551 days. Even if those courts stopped taking new cases tomorrow, it would take about four years to work the backlog down to zero, the Miami Herald reports. “The backlog in these courts is terrible, and it’s getting worse every day,” says Miami immigration attorney Tammy Fox-Isicoff. “It’s not a new problem — it’s been growing for years, and everybody in the system knows it.” South Florida’s clogged immigration dockets are a reflection of a much larger national problem. A recent report by the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that a chronic shortage of immigration judges doubled the backlog of cases across the U.S. between 2009 and 2015.
Nearly 600,000 immigration cases are awaiting decisions, the report says, and some overwhelmed courts are so far behind that they’re already scheduling cases for the year 2020. In some of them, the average time for a single case is nearly three years. Immigration judges and lawyers, as well as the GAO, say many problems have contributed to the glut of cases. The main one is a lack of judges. “For the past 15 years, they haven’t hired enough judges to handle the backlog,” said Andrew Arthur of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., who served eight years as an immigration judge. There are only about 300 judges, which means they have an average caseload of about 2,000 each, an unmanageable number. To make matters worse, about 40 percent of the judges are eligible for retirement and could leave at any moment. “We’re sort of like the Cinderella of the Department of Justice,” said Denise Noonan Slavin of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the judges’ union. “We’re at the end of the line when it comes to money.”