Fund the Immigration Court System Already
By Eleanor Acer
On Friday, an editorial in the Houston Chronicle urged for “more funding for our immigration court system,” pointing out that “the underfunding of adjudication has more than doubled the average processing time for noncitizens to move through the court system.” The most recent data from Syracuse University’s TRAC show that 441,939 immigration court cases have been pending for an average of 599 days.
Funding for frontline immigration enforcement has increased by 300 percent in recent years, but funding for the immigration courts that handle removal cases has increased by only 70 percent. Underfunding the immigration courts undermines immigration enforcement. Not only are those with legitimate claims to relief stuck in limbo, but as the editorial points out, those with no viable claims end up with protracted stays on U.S. soil. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January, someone seeking asylum or other relief in immigration court might get a court date scheduled four years down the road.
In a recent background paper, Human Rights First described the case of a Syrian asylum seeker whose family is facing grave risks at home and cannot be brought to safety in the United States until his asylum case is decided. In another case involving a refugee from Tibet, he has now been separated from his family for many years.
A wide array of former government officials and experts has called for increasing the number of immigration judges. Additionally, a recent poll conducted for Human Rights First by Public Opinion Strategies confirms that more than three-quarters of voters in the most closely watched congressional districts believe that Congress should increase the number of judges to help ensure fair and timely immigration hearings.
To handle the incoming removal caseload and reduce the backlog, the immigration courts will need 275 to 300 additional immigration judge teams. Besides the 55 teams requested by the Department of Justice for Fiscal Year 2016, an additional 75 immigration judge teams should be added each year for three fiscal years, for a total of 225 additional teams. As Congress focuses on Department of Justice appropriations, it should significantly increase the number of immigration judge teams both to protect the persecuted and preserve the integrity of the immigration system.