California has the largest immigration court backlog, but the number of pending cases is growing more rapidly in other states, according to a new report.
Average wait times for hearings are also lengthening, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University, an organization that analyzes data from immigration courts.
Regardless of political stance on immigration, most involved in the system agree that, for years, there haven’t been enough immigration judges for the volume of cases coming in. While the Trump administration has hired more judges, the backlog continues to grow.
Nationwide, the backlog grew to 746,049 cases through the end of July, according to TRAC. About 80 percent of those cases are in 10 states — California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia. (Immigration courts are present in 31 states or territories.)
California has the largest backlog at 140,676 cases as of the end of July. Maryland has the fastest growing backlog, at 33,384, which is almost double the number of cases in the state at the beginning of fiscal 2017.
California’s backlog increased about 48 percent during that time from 95,252 cases at the beginning of fiscal 2017.
Massachusetts, Georgia and Florida also have faster growing backlogs than California at 76 percent, 67 percent and 57 percent, respectively. Nationally, the backlog grew about 38 percent, TRAC said.
Within each state, courts have varying wait times for cases to be heard and decided. Dockets solely consisting of cases for people held in immigration detention centers move faster because the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency within the Department of Justice that is responsible for immigration courts, prioritizes detained cases.
People who aren’t held in custody are also more likely to find lawyers and submit applications for ways to stay in the U.S., adding to their case times.
In a June report, TRAC calculated wait times for pending cases based on how long they had been waiting and how much longer until their next hearings. Some of those cases may need additional hearings before the case is finished.
Detainees at Otay Mesa Detention Center, in San Diego, have less than six months wait for their next hearings, according to TRAC. The court, which has five judges, has a backlog of about 500 cases.
San Diego’s downtown court, with six judges, has about a year and a half wait and a backlog of over 4,000 cases.
Los Angeles and San Francisco both have much larger backlogs and longer wait times.
Los Angeles has over 70,000 pending cases, the second highest of any court in the U.S. after New York. People wait more than two and a half years for hearings in the City of Angels.
San Francisco, has almost 52,000 pending cases and a wait time of more than three years.
Two courts in Texas have the longest projected wait times nationwide at close to five years, followed by the court in Chicago at just over four years.
A docket of non-detained people in Imperial, Calif., ranks fourth at about four years.
According to EOIR, the two judges in Imperial have been hearing only detained cases but expect to begin working the non-detained docket in October.
The National Association of Immigration Judges has blamed disparities in funding between immigration enforcement agencies and immigration court as well as political priorities rearranging judges’ dockets under both the Obama and Trump administrations as reasons for the backlog.
The Obama administration rearranged judges’ schedules to hear recently arrived cases first as part of its response to an influx of migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from Central America. The Trump administration sent judges to work in courts along the southwest border, which stalled cases those judges had been set to hear at home.
Ashley Tabaddor, president of the judges union, told Congress earlier this year that “many judges who went to the border courts had no work to do.”
“Such docket shuffling tactics have led to further increases in delays and to the backlog of cases before the immigration court system as a whole,” Tabaddor added.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has celebrated the agency’s tactics for immigration courts and their judges, and he has condemned the backlog as an issue that needs to be addressed promptly.
“Let’s be clear: we have a firm goal, and that is to end the lawlessness that now exists in our immigration system,” Sessions said at a June training session for EOIR. “This Department of Justice is committed to using every available resource to meet that goal. We will act strategically with our colleagues at DHS and across the government, and we will not hesitate to redeploy resources and alter policies to meet new challenges as they arise.”
Sessions implemented an annual quota to measure immigration judges’ performance as part of his plan to beat the backlog.
“To end the lawlessness and move to the virtuous cycle, we have to be very productive,” Sessions said at the June training session. “Volume is critical. It just is.”
Tabaddor told Congress those quotas will wreak havoc on the system and cause more immigrants to appeal their cases.
“It is difficult to find a shred of practical justification in this approach,” Tabaddor said.
When asked about the TRAC analysis, EOIR said it doesn’t comment on third-party reporting of its data.
Speaking generally about the backlog issue, a spokesman for EOIR pointed out that since the end of January 2017, the agency has hired 82 immigration judges, bringing the total number of immigration judges nationwide to 351. The agency is planning to hire at least 75 more this fall.
“Hiring more immigration judges and reducing the time it takes to hire a judge are two key elements reducing the pending caseload of immigration court cases,” Sessions said in a statement.
The EOIR spokesman added that an electronic filing system being piloted in San Diego is also expected to help with the backlog.
In California courts, the number of new cases peaked in the mid 90s and has been trending up since a low in 2013, according to TRAC data. In 2016, California courts received 44,058 new cases, and in 2017, immigration officials filed 43,805 new cases in the state, a less than one percent decrease.
TRAC projected that the number of cases will have increased by 14 percent at the end of fiscal 2018 to 49,806. At the end of July, California courts had received 36,893 cases.
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