As the immigration court backlog grows, Congress twiddles its thumbs

At the end of July, 453,948 active cases were pending in the federal immigration court system, formally known as the Executive Office for Immigration Review. At the end of August, the number of pending cases had nudged up to 456,644, or about 2,700 cases -- an additional 128 cases each day the court was open that month. Since October 2014, the start of the federal fiscal year, the backlog is up 11.9%, and is double what it was just six years ago.

According to a new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which, among other things, analyzes federal immigration data, those pending cases have been open on average for 635 days. How long before they are completed?

“As of the end of August 2015, the court's pending workload included 421,647 scheduled hearings, with an average additional wait of 436 calendar days,” according to the clearinghouse. “Note that this is based upon the average additional number of days after August 31 that individuals will have to wait until their scheduled hearing. Since the average individual has already been waiting 635 days, the projected total time from the date their case was filed until their hearing date is 635 days (plus) 436 days, or a total of 1,071 days -- just under three years (35.2 months).”

Which means, if you extrapolate, people that federal immigration officials started deportation proceedings against today will, on average, not have a resolution until September 2018. As the clearinghouse notes, some cases will move through in a much shorter time frame. But others will take even longer -- as much as 6.5 years.

It’s not as if the judges are dragging their feet. The system is overwhelmed and under-budgeted, with the judges handling about 1,400 cases a year each, twice what administrative law judges in other federal departments handle. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board argued earlier this year, “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.”

There is a solution: Money. Estimates range from needing 100 to 225 additional judges to clear the current cases and keep up with the anticipated future caseload. So how does that happen? Congress budgets for it. Except it refuses to.

This is where Congress’ cynical approach to immigration enters the spotlight. The Republicans in Congress bray about Obama’s immigration policies and decry the high numbers of folks here in the country without permission. But they refuse to look at the solution that they control: properly budgeting the court system that determines who has a legally recognized right to stay, and who is eligible for deportation.

The Republicans had hoped to stay away from immigration heading into the 2016 presidential cycle, but Donald Trump has made it a dominant issue in the early going, which only makes the party’s failure to address it all the more visible. The Republicans could try to grab some positive headlines by moving reasonable legislation forward, and by approving President Obama’s budget request to increase the court’s capacity to handle immigration cases.

But asking the political system to resolve a political issue seems to be asking too much. 

Twitter: @smartelle

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