Overwhelmed immigration courts and massive court backlogs have long been a nation-wide problem. Hearings are regularly scheduled years in advance—in some jurisdictions, judges are scheduling hearings into 2022. This means that many immigrants are held in limbo for years, unable to move forward, while living with the uncertainty of whether or not they will be permitted to stay in the United States or ordered to leave.
The Baltimore Immigration Court is no exception. A confidential report leaked to VICE News last week, authored by a court administrator at the request of the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge, details findings from a review conducted November and December 2017. According to the report, the number of sitting judges in the Baltimore Immigration Court fluctuates between four and five, yet the caseload continues to grow.
While Congress has provided increased funds for the immigration court system over the last couple years, that funding has paled in comparison to increased funding for immigration enforcement. This imbalance has left the courts unable to handle the hundreds of thousands of new cases added to the dockets every year.
The Baltimore Immigration Court—the only immigration court in Maryland—has the “fastest-growing backlog,” with more than 34,000 pending cases. The report found that, between 2014 and 2017, the court lost seven full-time permanent employees, yet the Baltimore Immigration Court caseload nearly quadrupled.
Hiring more judges is not the solution—at least, not without first ensuring that the judges can maintain their own integrity and independence in addition to due process for the immigrants appearing before them. Further, Congress should establish a separate court system, which is independent of the executive branch in the form of an Article 1 Court, to ensure both judicial independence and due process.
The dire need within the Baltimore immigration Court is not limited to the overworked judges.
According to the report, “[t]he court’s office had no Spanish speakers on staff, even though 84 percent of its cases involved a respondent who only spoke Spanish. The equipment in the office was dated and often nonfunctional.” The Court had only two copiers, and, the report notes, “there have been literally days when the Court is unable to use either copier.” Further, the shortage of administrative staff, and boxes containing hundreds of thousands of files, has led to “hallway space filled with files, file carts, printers and the like.”
Others have cautioned increasing the number of immigration judges on the bench without also ensuring that other due process is maintained.
The findings coincide with the “surge” of families and unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. According to the report, the court had 8,331 pending cases at the end of 2014, but the pending caseload rocketed to 29,184 by the end of 2017. Nationally, the number of pending cases has increased 41 percent, with a total of 764,561 pending cases as of August 31, 2018.
Los Angeles-based Immigration Judge Trabaddor describes the backlog: “It feels like you are being buried alive…. It’s like this tsunami of cases that just never goes away, and instead of [us] being helped, the department is just adding more pressure.”
The Trump administration has taken some measures to reduce the backlog. On October 1, 2018, the immigration court system began to impose a new case completion on immigration judges, which many fear will further strip immigration judges of independence and “compromise the fairness and consistency in court decisions.”
The U.S. immigration court system continues to be plagued with many longstanding problems, including the shortage of immigration judges and infrastructure that would improve functioning of the court. Add to this, a new quota system which superficially seeks to address the burgeoning backlog—including in the Baltimore Immigration Court. Already overworked judges will now be forced to spend less time on hearings that may have life-or-death consequences for the immigrants before them.