Immigration Courts Are Under Massive Backlog of Cases

Immigration courts across the nation are massively backlogged with cases due to a lack of judges.1 The average time for a case to go through South Florida’s backlogged federal immigration courts, for example, is 551 days, close to two years.2 Even if the courts stopped taking new cases tomorrow, it would take about four years to work the backlog down to zero.3

The Federal Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported that a chronic shortage of immigration judges doubled the backlog of cases across the country between 2009 and 2015.4 The GAO report says that nearly 600,000 immigration cases are awaiting decisions, and some courts are so far behind that they’re already scheduling cases for the year 2020.5 In some courts, the average time for a single case is almost three years.6

The main issue is a lack of judges.7 Andrew R. Arthur of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., who served eight years as an immigration judge, says, “For the past 15 years, they haven’t hired enough judges to hire the backlog.”8 There are only about 300 judges, which means they have an average caseload of about 2,000 cases, a number that is unmanageable.9 Furthermore, about 40 percent of the judges are eligible for retirement and could leave at any moment.10

Unlike the judges in U.S. district courts that hear criminal cases and civil lawsuits, immigration judges are not part of an independent legal system. They work for the Justice Department, who oversees their court dockets, meaning that they have to conform to the changes in Washington, especially after a change of presidential administrations.11

Arthur says, “There’s a tremendous amount of burnout among the judges because of the caseload. An immigration judge can sit on the bench for eight hours a day, five days a week – sometimes every other week – for preparation for upcoming cases. And the cases themselves can be gut-wrenching, with all kinds of stories of abuse back in the home country. Or maybe he’s being asked to send people to a place they came from as a child, a place they’ve never really lived. Judges are human.”


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