For more than a decade, the immigration court system has struggled with an enormous backlog. The latest figures from (TRAC) record the backlog at an all-time high of 521,676 as of the end of October, the first month in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017.
The data release coincides with reports of President-Elect Donald Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office. Beginning on his first day, Trump promises to pursue “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).” In other words, all retiring immigration court personnel—including immigration judges—would not be replaced.
For years, the lengthy backlog in immigration court has been attributed to a combination of increased enforcement, lack of resources and—in particular—a shortage of immigration judges. In fact, a hiring freeze at the Department of Justice (DOJ) from 2011-2015 was followed by an increase of nearly 300,000 cases in the backlog during that time period.
The backlog has increased each year since 2006, and if Trump sticks to the plans he has announced, the enormous line will grow exponentially.
For more context, funding for immigration enforcement has increased more than fourfold since 2002—from $4.5 billion to $20.1 billion in 2016—while immigration court resources increased only 74 percent during the same time period. The backlog in the immigration courts ballooned during that timeframe, from 166,000 cases in FY 2002 to 516,000 in FY 2016.
In an effort to bring the backlogs down, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the agency within the Department of Justice with responsibility for adjudicating immigration cases, was granted additional funding to hire more immigration judges and support staff. Following a series of hiring pushes beginning in 2015, EOIR now employs an all-time high of 296 immigration judges, but still falls short of the 374 slots for which the agency has funding.
Moreover, according to 2016 estimates from Human Rights First (HRF), EOIR would need to have a total of 524 immigration judges to eliminate a backlog of 500,000 cases by FY 2023. Failing to hire additional judges, HRF reports, would result in a backlog of 1 million cases in FY 2022.
These estimates are, of course, based on existing factors. Given that the backlog has continued to increase despite efforts to hire more immigration judges and increase court funding, Trump’s stated federal hiring freeze could grind the system to a halt. An increase in enforcement measures coupled with a hiring freeze would paralyze the immigration court system—sacrificing due process and leaving hundreds of thousands of people in legal limbo.
Currently, those in immigration court proceedings must wait nearly five years for their cases to be adjudicated in some states. The latest TRAC data shows that it takes an average of 571 days for an immigration case to reach completion. These processing times can shift dramatically depending on the system’s caseload. As of October 31, open cases had been pending for an average of 675 days. Cases in Colorado have been pending the longest, at over 1,000 days on average.
While it is still unclear what Trump will or won’t do, there is no doubt that his announced plans would devastate the already drowning immigration court system, affecting hundreds of thousands of people who have a right to their day in court. President-Elect Trump and his administration would be wise to take these factors into consideration before implementing sweeping changes.
Photo by Phil Roeder.