U.S. Immigration Courts’ Backlog Exceeds One Million Cases

The backlogged deportation docket pending in U.S. immigration courts surpassed one million cases in August, despite the Trump administration’s varied attempts to cut back on asylum claims.

The backlog this year has grown at a record pace, according to theTransactional Records Access Clearinghouseat Syracuse University, which tracks immigration court data. The figure has nearly doubled since President Trump took office in January 2017, when about 542,000 cases were pending.

The growing backlog is due in part to the surge of Central American families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this year, with more people crossing illegally in May than during any other month in a decade. The Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration has also contributed, experts say.

A Justice Department spokesman said that, while the department doesn’t certify data from third parties, the report and the department’s own data offer further confirmation of the crisis at the border. The spokesman added that the administration is taking steps to address the backlog and called on Congress to act to address the issue.

The administration has pushed recent border-crossers to the front of the queue in an effort to deport them faster and send a message that unauthorized immigrants seeking asylum can no longer stay in the country for years, as their cases wend their way through the courts. That has had the effect of delaying court dates for asylum seekers who arrived in the country earlier.

Immigration officials have also eliminated an Obama-era policy prioritizing for deportation immigrants with criminal records. That policy sped up adjudication by allowing immigration judges to close cases administratively, meaning many dismissed charges against other people without deporting them. The Trump administration has said that most illegal immigrants should be deported.

The administration’s actions have had the effect of allowing most people who already have asylum cases pending to stay longer—though TRAC data suggest most of these immigrants will ultimately not qualify for asylum. Asylum seekers are currently issued work permits while they wait, though the administration has moved to do away with the requirement to issue these work permits.

The Trump administration has argued that the extensions and work permits provide a back door for immigrants to stay in the country and that the wait times have made crossing the border only more attractive for prospective migrants.

The Justice Department, which oversees the immigration courts, has pressed individual judges to move through cases faster, giving judges a one-year deadline to decide each case and setting a 700-case annual quota. Only about a third of judges are on track to meet that goal, according to Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, a labor union.

The administration has also begun shifting cases to judges known to work quickly, sometimes handing cases to courts located far from where an immigrant is living. The Justice Department has also hired more judges to speed up processing. About 400 judges are working today, according to the union, compared with about 280 at the end of the Obama administration.

Last week the government also set up temporarytent courts that are closed to the public, making them unlike other courts in the country, to hear the cases of asylum seekers the Trump administration has required to remain in Mexico while awaiting court dates. Asylum applicants whose cases are heard in the tent courts are connected using videoconference technology to immigration judges located in regular courtrooms—taking those judges away from hearing in-person immigration cases and contributing to the system’s overall backlog.

The NAIJ rebuked the tent courts’ closed conditions as “another glaring reason why the immigration courts have been deprived of key characteristics of what it means to be a court in the United States.”

Meantime, the Trump administration has taken steps to limit applications for asylum, which it argues will allow courts to concentrate on existing cases. The Supreme Court last weekallowed the administration to begin enforcing a policypreventing nearly all immigrants from Latin America, except those of Mexican origin, to qualify for asylum. That policy, which faces lower-court challenges that the Supreme Court has allowed to proceed, bars anyone who has crossed another country on their way to the U.S. from winning asylum cases.

Administration officials are also weighing a new rule to attach a nearly $1,000 fee to appeals in the immigration court system, according to a person familiar with the matter. Such a policy would deter most immigrants from being able to afford appeals, advocates say. In a statement, a Justice Department spokesman said the fee for appeals—currently at $110—hasn’t been adjusted since 1986, unlike most other immigration-related fees.

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