Immigration court backlog rises

TRAC: 829,608 cases presently stuck in system

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SAN ANTONIO – Hundreds of thousands of immigration cases across the country are pending in the federal courts. 

Today, 829,608 cases are stuck in the system, according to TRAC, a research data center at Syracuse University. In Texas, there are 123,024 pending cases, with 27,438 of them in San Antonio

Simon Azar-Farr, who specializes in immigration and federal criminal defense in San Antonio, said the congestion in the courts can't be blamed on just one thing.

“There are all sorts of reasons that have contributed to that backlog including a shortage of immigration judges, (and) a significant number of cases from Central America that came in 2014,” Azar-Farr said.

Azar-Farr said the recent government shutdown did not help either. 

“Many of the immigration judges could not report to work and since they could not report to work, many of the cases that had scheduled during that time frame had to be rescheduled in somewhat further adding to the backlog of future cases,” Azar-Farr said. 

San Antonio attorney Rafael Borras said the backlog affects the way they represent clients in court. 

“It’s very difficult when your hearing (is a ) couple (of) years ahead. We are getting dates right now for 2021, 2022,” Borras said. 

Borras is concerned about the number of cases judges must complete a year. 

“All these cases need to be heard, need to be handled, need to be analyzed, evaluated, with a judge that's able to analyze this without any pressure. Those quotas, the pressure that is being put on the immigration judges, is what concerns me the most,” Borras said. 

President Donald Trump mentioned the issue in a recent oval office address. 

“We have requested more agents, immigration judges and bed space to process the sharp rise of unlawful migration fueled by our very strong economy,” Trump said.

Azar-Farr said solutions could also exist beyond adding more judges. 

“The country has to come to terms how they want to deal with this immigration situation,” Azar-Farr said. 

Azar-Farr has his prediction on what could happen. 

“I suspect at some point they will manage to get the dockets under control, but I will just equally suspect that another massive migration will hit them at that time and there will be again, more problems in 2020, 2021, 2022," Azar-Farr said. 

Statement from U.S. Department of Justice - Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) :

“Through the end of December 2018, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) had 821,726 cases pending in 65 immigration courts and adjudication centers nationwide, as indicated here. The number of pending cases has risen by over 350 percent since FY 2009 and by about 50 percent since FY 2016. 

A number of factors have contributed to this trend, including a significant increase in asylum applications. Additionally, new cases filed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) increased by almost 70,000 in FY 2017, and new case filings remain at historic highs. 

EOIR remains committed to a multi-level strategy to reduce the growing backlog, improve efficiency in our courts, and maximize our adjudicatory capacity, while maintaining due process. We are aggressively working to strengthen and improve the functioning of our immigration court system by hiring additional judges and support staff, implementing performance measures and completion goals long recommended by multiple agencies, increasing the use of video-teleconference capabilities, and launching electronic filing.

These efforts are showing results. After seven years of declining or stagnant case completion numbers between FY 2010 and FY 2016, EOIR’s case completions increased by nearly 14 percent in FY 2017 and by almost 20 percent in FY 2018, even though its net number of immigration judges hearing cases increased by only 3 percent in FY 2018. The difference between new cases filed by DHS and cases completed by EOIR fell by almost 18 percent in FY 2018, after two years of increases, including a 56 percent increase in FY 2017. EOIR now has 409 immigration judges nationwide, and has hired more immigration judges since Jan. 20, 2017, than it hired total between FY 2010 and FY 2016. EOIR expects its completion numbers to continue to increase as many of the 71 immigration judges hired in the past five months are just beginning to hear full case dockets. 

Available statistics on pending caseload broken down by immigration court for FY2017 (Table 1, Page 9) can be found here. We expect the FY2018 Statistics Yearbook to publish in a few weeks.”

About the Authors:

Tiffany Huertas is known for her in-depth storytelling and her involvement with the community.

Jason Foster is an executive producer at KSAT. He's worked in the news industry in Texas for more than 15 years, including as a photojournalist.