Editorial

The immigration court backlog: Why won't Congress act?

Over the last 10 years, the workload of the federal immigration court system has increased by 146% to an astounding 453,948 active cases at the end of July. The average amount of time each of those cases has been pending: 627 days. Some have been lingering for years.

The reason for the enormous backlog is clear. While the government has poured money into enhancing border security — the number of border agents has nearly doubled to 21,000 in the last decade — it has failed to similarly increase the capacity of the immigration court system that hears deportation cases. According to a recent report, immigration enforcement budgets increased 300% from 2002 through 2013, but immigration court budgets rose only 70%.

The ramifications of such an overwhelmed system are wide-ranging. People who have no legal right to be in the country get lengthy reprieves simply because the judges can't get to their cases. Those with legitimate claims to asylum are left twisting in the wind. The longer a case drags out, the harder it is to verify or refute an immigrant's claim. And the judges face significant stress and burnout. They handle an average of 1,400 cases each per year, more than twice the caseload for Social Security and Veterans Affairs administrative law judges. Under such pressure, judges complain they have insufficient time to research legal points in the immigration laws, which rival tax codes for complexity.

Immigration judges are part of the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, whose current budget includes 319 judicial positions, only 247 of which are filled (and 130 of those judges will be eligible to retire at the end of September). President Obama has asked for an additional 55 "judge teams" (a judge and seven court staffers) in the upcoming budget, but advocates say that the increase would be insufficient to clear the backlog and stay ahead of the constant flow of new cases — well over 200,000 a year. Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges, estimates it would take an additional 100 judges, a number seconded by a separate report from the American Bar Assn. The bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill (which the House failed to pass two years ago) would have added 225 positions over three years.

Congress' failure to overhaul the nation's immigration system has been a long-running embarrassment. But this is one fix that should be relatively easy. Politicians, particularly Republicans, love to rail about the need to better enforce immigration law. But it takes courts and judges to do that, and without proper staffing, Congress has set up the system to fail.

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