New Report: Ballooning Backlogs in Asylum and Immigration Court Systems Leave Refugees at Risk, Prolong Separation of Families

New York City – Human Rights First today released a new report detailing how chronic underfunding, hiring challenges, and shifting enforcement strategies have led to alarming backlogs in the U.S. asylum and immigration systems with more than 620,000 pending removal and asylum cases, exposing vulnerable asylum seekers and their families to combined wait times of up to six years for resolution of their claims. Today’s report, “In the Balance,” includes recommendations for the U.S. government to address these backlogs by providing adequate staffing levels and resources to lessen wait times that hurt asylum seekers and threaten to undermine the integrity of the system.


“The backlogs and delays in the immigration court and asylum systems are leaving asylum seekers in limbo for years, undermining the recruitment of pro bono legal counsel, prolonging the separation of refugee families, and stranding some families in dangerous and difficult situations abroad,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “It is long past time for Congress and the administration to fully address the funding gaps and imbalances that are at the root of these backlogs. Sufficient funds should be allocated to adjudicatory and protection functions, particularly in the wake of substantially increased enforcement budgets. If the U.S. government does not  increase the number of immigration court judges, that backlog could grow to 1 million cases by 2022.”


Findings from “In the Balance” are informed by detailed analysis of data along with in-depth interviews with asylum seekers, legal service providers, and mental health professionals, and meetings with former and current government officials. The report details the impact of these long delays on asylum seekers and their families. The report finds that the immigration courts are woefully understaffed, detailing how without additional judges the backlog will top 500,000 by the end of fiscal year 2016 and reach 1 million in fiscal year 2022. As a result, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are facing wait times of more than three years for their cases to be heard. In some states, such as Texas, immigrants and asylum seekers must wait nearly five years for their cases to be resolved.


The report also finds that the number of cases before the nation’s eight asylum offices has ballooned from 32,560 in 2013 to some 144,500 in March 2016. This growth is largely due to an increase in the number of credible fear and reasonable fear interviews—which are part of the expedited removal and reinstatement of removal procedures that have been increasingly employed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the years—along with an increase in affirmative asylum applications. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) Asylum Division lacks adequate staffing to address the backlogs, resulting in average wait times of more than two years for initial affirmative asylum interviews. The Asylum Division currently employs over 400 officers but requires 800 to effectively and promptly address the backlog.


“Since 2013 the number of backlogged cases at the USCIS Asylum Division has more than quadrupled, with average wait times for initial affirmative asylum interviews exceeding two years,” noted Human Rights First’s Shaw Drake, the primary researcher for today’s report. “Asylum seekers, who have often faced horrific trauma before coming to the United States, are trapped in this bogged-down system with their lives on hold, impeding their ability to fully recover from past events and struggling to access employment and education until their cases are resolved. Many had to make the difficult decision to leave family members behind in dangerous conditions and this separation now stretches years longer as they wait for resolution of their case.”


Human Rights First notes that chronic and disproportionate funding of the immigration system is a primary cause of these backlogs. Over the past 14 years, Congress has increased immigration enforcement budgets, but has not proportionately increased the budget of the systems charged with handling the resulting cases and the protection functions of summary enforcement tools.


Key recommendations from today’s report include:

  • Congress should authorize and appropriate funds for an additional 150 judges—over two years—in order to reach the recommended level of 524 immigration judges.
  • Congress should allocate requisite funding to expedite the hiring of all 374 currently funded immigration judge positions. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and its Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) should redouble efforts to fill these positions and improve the pace of hiring.
  • DHS and USCIS should increase the total number of asylum officer positions to 800 in order to reduce the backlog and work toward eliminating it as soon as possible.
  • The USCIS Asylum Division and EOIR should create effective procedures to advance asylum interviews and hearings for those with humanitarian or urgent concerns.
  • DHS should limit the use of expedited removal proceedings—which diverts substantial asylum office resources from affirmative asylum interviews—against Central American families and other populations with a high percentage of asylum seekers.


Leaders from both parties, including Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), as well as Congressmen John Culberson (R-TX) and Michael Honda (D-CA), undertook measures to increase the court’s capacity by funding an additional 55 immigration judge teams in the FY 2016 budget. Continued bipartisan support for additional funding is required to fully address the current backlogs. Experts from across the political spectrum have called for an increase in immigration judges and staff, as have the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, other faith-based and refugee assistance groups, and the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, which consists of the pro bono leaders of many of the nation’s leading law firms. Both the American Bar Association and the Administrative Conference of the United States have expressed concern that the immigration courts do not have the resources necessary to deal with their caseloads.


Published on April 19, 2016


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