President’s Budget Recognizes Need for More Immigration Judges, but Congress Should Fund More

The immigration court backlog is staggering, with many people facing delays of four or more years. President Obama’s proposed budget, released yesterday, would take a step towards addressing this. It would increase funding for the U.S. immigration court budget and add 55 immigration judge teams.

This is a welcome move, but it’s not enough to tackle the backlog effectively. The addition of 55 immigration judge teams may not even be enough to allow the immigration courts to keep pace with incoming cases and priority cases.

Congress should add many more immigration judge teams to the long under-resourced immigration courts. This would enhance the integrity of the immigration removal system, right a longstanding imbalance, and help the many asylum seekers and immigrants who deserve relief, but who are now caught in limbo.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, many immigration cases are now calendared for late November 2019—nearly five years down the road. The immigration court backlog now amounts to 430,000 cases.

These backlogs and delays have grown steeply in recent years due to lopsided funding. While immigration enforcement budgets increased by 300 percent between 2002 and 2013, funding for the immigration courts has lagged far behind, increasing by only 70 percent.

As former Department of Homeland Security lawyer David Martin explained in a recent AP piece:  “You fund more investigators, more detention space, more border patrol—almost all of these are going to produce some kind of immigration court case,” he said. “You are putting a lot more people into the system. It’s just going to be a big bottleneck unless you increase the size of that pipeline.”

Compounding these challenges, the administration’s decision last year to prioritize the cases of families and children considered recent border crossers means that other “non-priority” asylum and immigration cases—some of which have already been delayed for years—will now be delayed further. The prioritization of border screenings, along with underfunding, has also led to delays in the affirmative asylum interview process.

As a result of these prolonged delays, some refugee children are now left stranded for years in difficult and dangerous situations because their parents cannot bring them to safety until they have a hearing date and the immigration court grants them asylum.

Through our pro bono representation program, we provide legal representation—often in partnership with some of the nation’s leading law firms—to refugees whose cases are now stuck. One of our clients has a wife and child at risk in Syria; another has family hiding from the Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. These delays also undermine access to counsel, as recruiting pro bono lawyers to take on cases that will not have hearings for several years can be difficult to impossible.

Moreover, the massive backlogs and delays undermine the integrity of the immigration enforcement system. They can increase the system’s vulnerability to abuse as well. Some individuals may not appear (inadvertently as well as purposefully) when hearings will not occur for several years. By contrast, a properly resourced immigration court removal system would promptly provide relief to those who meet the standards, and order the deportation of those who do not qualify in a timely manner.

Congress should increase funding to require at least 150 additional immigration judges, along with support teams, as well as at least 200 immigration judge or magistrate teams to augment this capacity for a number of years so that the backlog can be addressed within 5 years. The funding imbalance has reached crisis proportions now. Congress must right this imbalance.



  • Eleanor Acer

Published on February 4, 2015


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