As 2018 Draws to a Close, Immigration Court Backlogs Reach Record Levels

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In the first two years of the Trump administration, immigration hardliners made repeated attempts to reduce immigration court backlogs, from hiring nearly100 new immigration judges to limiting judges’ abilities to manage their dockets. However, a new report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) shows that despite the administration’s efforts, the backlogs continue to grow at an unprecedented rate, reaching 800,000 cases for the first time in November. This massive increase would likely exacerbate already high delays many immigrants already face in immigration courts around the country.

Since President Trump took office, the backlogs have grown by 51 percent (an additional 300,000 cases). At the current rate of growth, the backlog would double in Trump’s first term in office to over one million pending cases, significantly quicker than under President Obama. When Obama took office in 2009, there were over 186,000 pending cases in immigration court, increasing to over 516,000 cases eight years later.

Currently, the court with the most pending cases is the New York City immigration court, with just over 100,000 cases pending. According to TRAC, a case before the New York immigration court takes an average of 981 days to be completed. The most delayed court in the nation, Denver, has an average completion time of 1,207 days, slightly less than four years.

Before Jeff Sessions stepped down as Attorney General in November, he repeatedly tried to speed up processing in immigration courts, often at the expense of due process and judicial independence. In May, Sessions issued a precedent-setting decision that largely ended the practice of administrative closure, a docket management tool that allowed judges to temporarily take a case off their docket. In August, Sessions issued another decision, limiting  judges’ authority to adjourn cases to give immigrants more time to prepare or find an attorney.

Sessions also presided over the imposition of new “case completion” guidelines. These new quotas require judges to complete 700 cases per year or risk potential employment sanctions, including the possibility of termination. Advocates decried the changes as risking “assembly-line justice” as overworked judges sought to issue decisions as quickly as possible in order to keep their jobs safe.

So far, the administration’s efforts to reduce the backlog through new hires, case quotas, and limits on how judges manage their dockets show no sign of working. Although 2018 was marked by increased interior numbers of ICE arrests inside the United States and escalating numbers of asylum-seekers arriving at the border, the backlog grew by 22.1 percent, roughly the same as in 2017 when the backlog grew by 21.9 percent. Because most cases take more than a year to resolve, it is likely too early to determine whether the changes will have any effect on the growth of the backlog.

While it remains to be seen whether the administration’s hardline efforts will make a dent on the backlog in the future, the strategy’s danger to due process clearly outweighs any possible positive effect in reducing the backlog. To produce a more timely and just result, advocates have called for the creation of independent “Article I” immigration courts, which would insulate judges from  political pressures and the whiplash of ever-changing directives on case processing.

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