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Backlogs in U.S. immigration courts are up 38 percent since Trump took office

The U.S. immigration court system is straining to accommodate cases, with a 38 percent increase in the backlog since President Trump took office, according to a new analysis of government data.

Nationwide, there were 746,049 pending cases as of July 31 – up from 542,411 at the end of January 2017, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

‘It’s a fairly remarkable increase – nearly 40 percent in 18 months,’ former immigration Judge Paul Schmidt Wickham told ‘It shows that the policies being followed by this administration are making things worse rather than better.’

The increase in caseload has occurred unevenly, with 10 states responsible for the majority of the growth in backlogged cases.

While not every state has immigration court, immigrants living in each state have cases before an immigration judge. This map illustrates where people with pending immigration cases are living

Maryland had the highest increase (96 percent), with 33,384 backlogged cases as of July 31, compared to 17,074 at the end of January 2017.

Massachusetts followed, with a 76 percent increase to 26,782 cases, compared to 15,208 cases 18 months earlier.

Georgia had the third highest increase at 67 percent (rising to 23,249 cases from 13,955), followed by Florida with a 57 percent increase (up to 50,544 pending cases from 32,233). California had a 48 percent increase and the highest overall backlog of any state with 140,676 unresolved cases, up from 95,252.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sought to address the problem through a number of steps, however many experts say changes under the Trump administration are exacerbating the backlog.

‘No sane person would look at this (system) and think that throwing more cases into this system would be a good idea,’ Schmidt Wickham said.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration court system, announced earlier this month that it has hired 23 new immigration judges in an effort to take on the backlog and to offset the retirement of judges. 

That change brings the total number of immigration judges to 351, with Department of Justice officials expecting to add another 75 in the fall.

Sessions says he has also introduced a ‘streamlined’ approach for hiring judges – a historically lengthy process – to bring the average hiring time down to 266 days, compared from 742 days in 2017, according to Department of Justice data.

In addition, the DOJ has introduced a new quota that would require immigration judges to close 700 cases a year.

Quotas ‘would threaten the integrity and independence of the court and potentially increase the court’s backlog,’ according to the National Association of Immigration Judges, the union representing the judges.

Ten states were responsible for a majority of the increase in case backlogs within U.S. immigration courts since President Trump took office

Ten states were responsible for a majority of the increase in case backlogs within U.S. immigration courts since President Trump took office

Despite those efforts, experts say that a number of policy changes under the Trump administration continue to compound the backlog and more recent actions could worsen the situation in years to come.

‘The problem is basic policy decisions in managing the workload,’ said Susan B. Long, co-director of TRAC, which published the analysis. ‘Historically backlogs have been rising for a very long time, so this is not a new problem, but they have accelerated since President Trump assumed office.’

Under the current administration, the DOJ has ended an Obama-era practice that gave the government prosecutorial discretion in immigration cases, which allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys to prioritize certain cases and deprioritize others by taking them off the docket indefinitely.

For example, officials could deprioritize cases in which an immigrant has been living in the country for many years without committing any crimes, who is also paying taxes and has close relatives who are U.S. citizens. 

The goal was to allow the DOJ to focus more time and energy prosecuting immigrants who were convicted of other crimes, engaged in gang activity, or who had just crossed the border.

Long told that ‘tens of thousands’ of cases could be reintroduced to the docket now that prosecutorial discretion has been eliminated. 

The backlog of immigration cases has risen steadily over the past decade

The backlog of immigration cases has risen steadily over the past decade

Sessions also issued a decision earlier this year that takes away the authority of immigration judges to administratively close cases. Similar to prosecutorial discretion, administrative closures allowed a judge to close low-priority cases to make room on the docket for more serious offenses.

From Oct. 1, 2011 through Sept. 30, 2017, 215,285 cases were administratively closed, according to Sessions’ decision.

Now those cases are being added back to the docket, former Immigration Judge Jeffrey S. Chase told

‘Throwing a couple hundred thousand cases back into an already overloaded system is obviously going to have an impact,’ he said.

In addition, the Trump administration is planning to terminate Temporary Protected Status for people from El Salvador in September 2019 and Haiti in July 2019. TPS is a designation for people from certain countries for whom it would be unsafe or not feasible for them to return home. Chase said putting an end to the program will add to the backlog in the future.

Long said that the increase in immigration crackdowns at workplaces and at the Southern U.S. border are primarily being handled by criminal courts, so those aren’t having a huge impact on the backlog.

In many cases simple case ‘churn’ – when cases are postponed because a judge isn’t available or unable to get to all scheduled cases in a day – is the cause of backlog, Long said.


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