Roughly 1.6 million people are caught up in an ever-expanding backlog in United States immigration court, according to new data tracking cases through December 2021. Those with open immigration cases must now wait for a decision determining their legal status for an average of 58 months—nearly five years.
Though the immigration court backlog has been getting longer for more than a decade, a deluge of new cases added between October and December 2021 significantly worsened wait times, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research institution at Syracuse University that obtained the figures through Freedom of Information Act requests. The backlog increased by nearly 140,000 during that period, the fastest growth on record and the direct result of an uptick in arrests by agencies housed under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
“This is an enormous problem that’s facing the country,” says Susan Long, co-director of TRAC and a professor of managerial statistics at Syracuse. “The system is not working well.”
In September, DHS announced it would change its priorities for immigration enforcement, focusing on arresting immigrants that pose a “threat to our national security, public safety, and border security.” But that new directive wasn’t implemented until November 29 and the period just prior saw an extraordinary spike in new arrests. Fewer than 1% of those new cases brought by ICE and CBP beginning in October 2021 involved alleged criminal activity.
COVID-19 has also exacerbated the backlog, as court shutdowns beginning in March 2020 have reduced the number of court hearings and decisions across the country.
DHS declined to comment on the TRAC data. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the immigration court system, said courts have been relying on technology to continue operations, but blamed the on-going pandemic for the worsening backlog.
Addressing the backlog will require deep systemic changes. While both the Obama and Biden Administrations changed their priorities for immigration enforcement to focus on those with criminal histories, it’s unclear if such reprioritization will impact caseloads overwhelming the courts.
“There’s a long, long laundry list of things that have been tried in the past,” Long says. “It’s not going to be a quick fix.”
Source: TIME USA