A shortage of immigration judges coupled with underfunding and an enormous backlog of immigration cases has created a bottleneck that has left the average immigration case pending for more than 600 days, according to various reports.
Immigration courts hear cases involving removal and deportation from the United States. This includes applications for relief from removal or deportation, such as those from asylum seekers and people entitled to protection under the Convention Against Torture, as well as those seeking adjustment of status.
Immigration Courts Are Underfunded
In May, the American Immigration Council released a report Empty Benches: Underfunding of Immigration Courts Undermines Justice. That report concluded:
“Among many longstanding problems plaguing the U.S. immigration system is the shortage of immigration judges. Over the past decade, Congress has increased immigration enforcement funding exponentially, yet has not provided the immigration courts commensurate funding to handle the hundreds of thousands of new removal cases they receive each year. The resulting backlog has led to average hearing delays of over a year and a half, with serious adverse consequences.”
The report found that the number of immigration judges in the United States has fallen from 270 in April 2011 to 233 in May 2015.
The immigration courts aren’t just understaffed, but are also overworked. Each immigration judge handles an average of 1,400 matters a year, but some handle as many as 3,000 matters annually. That’s in sharp contrast to federal judges, who hear an average of 566 cases a year and Social Security administrative judges, who handle a reported 544 cases annually.
Judges have reportedly about seven minutes, on average, to decide a case, and pressure to act quickly can result in errors in legal reasoning and judgment. Consequently, US immigration attorneys, including immigration lawyers, end up filing appeals on behalf of their clients, ultimately costing the government more money as the appeal winds through the appeals process.
Impact of the Backlog
The result is a serious backlog of immigration cases.
The delays mean that many immigrants are held in detention centers while awaiting hearings. In the case of immigrants fleeing from persecution, some ultimately give up their quest for asylum in the United States rather than remain in limbo while being detained. Families may be separated. And those who are facing removal proceedings are held for months on end before a judge can grant relief or order them removed.
According to the report: “Accelerated proceedings put at risk children, whose cases require particular sensitivity, and asylum seekers, for whom ‘hasty decisions [in cases] could result in loss of lives.'”
Many Judges Also Eligible for Retirement
With immigration judges working under such tremendous pressure, it’s no surprise that many are considering career changes or retirement.
A recent Los Angeles Times article tells the story of an immigration judge who made the decision to retire after facing an influx of Central American youth seeking asylum in the United States.
“I just really didn’t like telling these young kids they had to go back to this situation,” Judge Eliza Klein told the LA Times. “It really was very stressful for me and distressing. I started out my career representing people with asylum claims, and a lot of those were Central American. I didn’t want to sign my name on something and send someone back somewhere where they could potentially lose their life.”
About 130 U.S. immigration judges were eligible for retirement in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30. Statistics are not yet available detailing how many chose to take retirement. Nor are details available on how many immigration judges are eligible for retirement in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.
In June, the U.S. Department of Justice swore in 18 new immigration judges who assume positions at immigration courts in Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Memphis, Newark, New Orleans, New York City, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. A spokesman for the immigration court has publically said there are plans to hire an additional 67 immigration judges.
There are 58 immigration courts across the United States, including one in Chicago (the only court in Illinois) that is staffed by six immigration judges. The situation is even more dire in surrounding states: The Kansas City, Missouri, court (the only court in Missouri) currently has no judges, while Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin have no immigration courts.
Helping Clients With Family- & Employment-Based Immigration Issues
The Illinois immigration lawyers at The Shapiro Law Group counsel clients seeking family- and employment-based visas to the United States, including immigrant and non-immigrant visas. We also advise clients seeking to become naturalized U.S. citizens. For a free initial consultation with our Chicago-based lawyers, call us today at (847) 564-0712 or contact us online.