The administration of President Donald Trump is leaving behind a “gigantic pileup” of immigration cases that are likely to remain unresolved during his successor’s entire first term in office, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University.
TRAC estimated the backlog amounts to nearly 1.3 million cases―some two and half times the number registered when Trump took office in January 2017. The administration’s pledges to streamline the system by hiring new immigration judges and fast-tracking court procedures failed to “make even a small dent” in the number, TRAC said.
The “exploding backlog” was largely driven by the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration strategies aimed at deterring undocumented immigrants from attempting to enter the U.S.
“The primary driver of the exploding backlog was not only the lack of immigration judges but the tsunami of new cases filed in court by the Department of Homeland Security,” TRAC said.
“This gigantic pile-up of cases awaiting resolution is an important part of President Trump’s departing legacy. President-elect (Joe) Biden must now consider how his administration can successfully tackle this backlog—something that previous administrations have found to be a perennial and seemingly intractable problem.”
Perhaps in anticipation, the president-elect’s transition team has placed immigration high on its agenda.
Biden has pledged to present Congress with a plan for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system on his first day in office.
The plan includes addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, an enforcement plan that deploys technology to patrol the border, an eight-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants without legal status, and an expansion of refugee admissions, reported The Washington Post.
At his nomination hearing Tuesday, incoming Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made clear he would halt further construction on the border wall begun by Trump, but would not say whether he would tear down any part of the 450-mile barrier already constructed.
The immigration case backlog presents the new administration with a potential humanitarian crisis before it has a new immigration policy in place.
“Even if the (incoming) administration halted immigration enforcement entirely, it would still take more than President-elect Biden’s entire first term in office―assuming pre-pandemic case completion rates—for the cases now in the active backlog to be completed,” TRAC said.
More than 95 percent of the cases currently unresolved have been on the books an average 15 months or longer, and the majority represent individuals whose deportation would thrust them into an economic or psychological crisis and potentially split apart families who had begun to put down roots in the U.S.
It could place at risk a significant number of those seeking asylum who are forced to return to their home countries.
Meanwhile, there are already indications that a new wave of would-be immigrants from Central America is underway. On Sunday, Guatemalan security forces forced back a caravan of thousands of individuals, mostly from Honduras, attempting to cross into the country heading towards Mexico and the U.S. border.
The majority of the cases currently simmering on the backburner concern a charge of “entry without inspection” or not having a valid immigrant visa. Only 1.3 percent of the cases involve alleged criminal activity, despite claims by anti-immigration activists that undocumented immigrants pose a threat to public safety.
Just 17 cases involve terrorism or a national-security related charge.
The backlog contains would-be immigrants from over 200 countries, but nearly a quarter of the cases (283,746) involve individuals from Guatemala. The second most numerous are from Honduras (244, 413), followed closely by Mexico (212,849).
The largest backlog docket is in New York City’s immigration court system, with over 100,000 pending cases, with an average wait time of 1,788 days―9 percent higher than the national average, TRAC found.
TRAC said the backlog figures can provide a “baseline” for the public debate over immigration as well as for policymakers considering reforms to the immigration court system.
“Not only do these data paint a picture of an immigration court (system) overwhelmed by immigration cases from the Department of Homeland Security, most of which do not appear driven by criminal deportability grounds, but (they) also illustrate the diverse cross-section of immigrants…many of whom have been in the United States for years,” TRAC said.
The complete report and tables are available here.