White House Decision Doubles Immigration Case Backlog to Over 1 Million: Report

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At the U.S. -Mexico border. Photo by longislandwins via Flickr

The backlog of active cases in the nation’s immigration courts has swollen to over one million, driven almost entirely by a White House decision to reopen previously closed cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University.

Just after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, there were 542,411 cases pending before immigration judges across the nation.  By September 30, 2019, the backlog stood at 1,023,767, TRAC concluded from an examination of court records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

When the cases not yet “calendared”—that is, not yet posted for a scheduled court hearing—are added, the backlog rises to 1,346, 302, representing an increase of 148 percent in the period since Trump was sworn in.

The largest increase in backlogged cases occurred following a May, 2018 decision by the Department of Justice to reopen cases that had been closed by immigration judges. The decision was taken on the grounds that only the Department of Homeland Security “has the exclusive authority to decide whether and when to initiate proceedings,” relating to approval or rejection of an application for residence in the U.S” —not immigration judges or even the federal Board of Immigration Appeals.

“The decision to reopen previously closed has singlehandedly exacerbated the immigration court crisis,” TRAC said. “Yet it has not received sufficient attention.”

“This single policy decision  has caused a much greater increase in the court’s backlog than have all currently pending cases from families and individuals arrested along the southwest border seeking asylum.”

Many of the closed cases—more than 215,000—had been closed because judges ruled there was a “credible fear” on the part of the individual about returning to his or her homeland.

Despite the administration’s rhetoric about curtailing the flow of undocumented immigrants across the U.S. southern border, relatively few of the reopened cases originated in that region, and many apparently were adjudicated during the previous government—suggesting that the move was part of the Trump White House efforts to reverse Obama-era policies.

The burden placed by the expanded caseload has affected immigration courts across the country. Average wait times for hearing cases in Arlington, Va., for example have increased from 1,165 days in April 2017 to 1,607 days as of September, 2019—a wait of approximately 4.4 years.

“Hearings are  being scheduled as far out as December, 18, 2023,” TRAC said.

The largest backlog in the country is in the New York City Immigration Court, where hearings are now being scheduled five years from now.

The  government has hired 92 new immigration judges in the past year, a net increase of 47 additional judges accounting for resignations and retirements, But the new total, 442 judges, is barely able to handle the increased load, said TRAC.

The average load of active cases per judge is over 2,000—rising to 3,000 when un-calendared cases are added.

Complete full details, including the average wait times and pending cases at each hearing location can  be downloaded here.

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