Growing backlog in immigration court leaves many migrants living in limbo

There is growing concern among immigrant rights advocates and immigration attorneys on rather the number of migrants apprehended along our southern border will deepen an already staggering backlog of cases in immigration court.

There is growing concern among immigrant rights advocates and immigration attorneys on whether the number of migrants apprehended along our southern border will deepen an already staggering backlog of cases in immigration court.

However, Congress remains divided on what should be included as part of wholesale immigration reform.

“How would you characterize what’s happening right now?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“Well, certainly it’s a mess,” said Jeronimo Cortina, Ph.D., associate director of the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies.

Cortina said our current system is outdated and fails to take into account the current state of world affairs and what is driving so many migrants to our border.

“The ultimate concern is that our immigration policy is never going to be fixed and we’re going to continue in the same path,” said Cortina. “It has to be devoid of politics, if not, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Cortina is talking about a path that recently led an estimated 15,0000 Haitian migrants to Del Rio where they had to camp under a bridge, waiting to be processed by Border Patrol. Executive Director of the migrants’ rights group, FIEL, Cesar Espinosa, said the current system also underestimates the desperation of migrants fleeing poverty, corruption, crime and natural disaster.

“They said, ‘We tried, but there’s no avenue, and when we have two kids dying of starvation, we just have to do what we have to do,’” said Espinosa.

Houston immigration attorney Charles Foster said adding to the problem is the way our country handles asylum claims from many of those who are caught illegally crossing the border.

“For people that are desperate, they want to take, just like people going to Vegas, they want to take a chance that they can win in this system for a better life,” said Foster.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse maintained by Syracuse University showed since 2017, between 60 and 70-percent of asylum decisions in immigration court denied relief. However, TRAC data shows it can take years before these decisions are reached. According to the TRAC database, more than 1.4 million cases are pending in immigration court, and nationally a case is pending an average of 950 days. In Houston immigration courts, which are more crowded, the average time a case is pending is 1,203 days.

“It was never designed to deal with the mass exodus from dysfunctional countries,” Foster said of our asylum system.

Just last week, more than 12,000 Haitian immigrants were released into the U.S. while their removal cases are pending.

President Joe Biden’s administration has created a dedicated docket to expedite recent asylum claims, but that too is already clogged with thousands of cases. Earlier this year, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar spear-headed a bill that would see asylum claims heard and decided at the border within days, but the effort is caught in gridlock on Capitol Hill. Foster, who worked with Republican and Democratic administrations, said quicker asylum decisions could help stem the flow.

“We have to deny the incentive, and that is what we have now. You can play the system, if you get in and apply for asylum you can stay here for years,” said Foster.

Another part of political back-and-forth involves the Remain in Mexico program for asylum seekers, which was put in place under President Donald Trump. The program required those seeking asylum in the U.S. to remain in Mexico while their cases are pending. Republicans blame the Biden administration ending of this program with, in large part, fueling the current surge. Texas sued and won a federal court ruling to reinstate the program, but the Biden administration is again trying to permanently end remain in Mexico. A recent filing by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accuses DHS officials of not making a good-faith effort to comply with the judge’s order. The issue has not been resolved.

On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced new priorities for immigration enforcement. Mayorkas said he wants ICE focusing much of its efforts on removing migrants who pose a danger to national security, public safety and border security.

“In exercising this discretion, we are guided by the knowledge that there are individuals in our country who have been here for generations and contributed to our country’s well-being, including those who have been on the frontline in the battle against COVID, lead congregations of faith, and teach our children. As we strive to provide them with a path to status, we will not work in conflict by spending resources seeking to remove those who do not pose a threat and, in fact, make our Nation stronger,” Mayorkas said in a statement announcing the new priorities.

According to US Customs and Border Protection, more than 1,541,651 migrants have been apprehended or deemed inadmissible to the United States since October 1, the beginning of the fiscal year 2021. This is the highest number of apprehensions in 21 years.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”