Given the record number of apprehensions seen along our southern border for a second year, the concern is growing over the backlog of cases in immigration court.
Immigration attorneys and advocates say the status quo cannot continue or the numbers will continue to grow.
“It’s a little bit chaotic,” said Houston immigration attorney Raed Gonzalez. “There’s a lot of new judges coming in that are not familiar with the processes.”
Gonzalez also said he does not see a clear focus on how the federal government is prioritizing the 1.9 million cases backlogged in immigration court. A number that has more than doubled over the last five fiscal years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse maintained by Syracuse University.
Currently, it is taking an average of 795 days for a case to be decided in immigration court, according to TRAC.
“There has to be stricter guidelines of what exactly are we looking for,” said Gonzalez. " If it’s going to be different in every court, and it’s going to be different with each assistant chief counsel that you deal with, there’s no cohesion.”
According to Department of Homeland Security memos, priority cases involve immigrants who are a threat to national security, public safety, or border security. However, Gonzalez said he sees many cases involving low-level offenses, or instances of incomplete paperwork, lingering in the system.
Resources are another issue plaguing the courts. This year, funding was secured to add 100 new immigration court judges, but it takes time to hire and train new judges.
“Immigration judges are understaffed,” said Jeronimo Cortina, associate director at the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican-American studies. “Judges, [in] some of the cases, are handling thousands of cases, which is impossible.”
Cortina said even with funding for the new judges, more resources will be needed to truly start bringing down the backlog.
“That could give a little bit, or give the pressure or the stream off a little bit more and allow the process to start moving,” said Cortina.
Both Gonzalez and Cortina also said how asylum claims are being handled at the border is another part of this problem.
“It’s extremely concerning our due process is not achieving what it’s designed to do,” said Cortina.
Gonzalez said the numbers seen along the border have somewhat short-circuited this process. Asylum is typically granted to someone who faces government persecution and human rights violations in their home country. Gonzalez said fleeing violence, poverty or natural disaster is not automatically grounds for an asylum claim.
“We’ve seen some of the cases in the past, not only with this administration, but they were not even really asked if they were afraid to go back home. They would just get them in, get the information and release them with documents to attend court in the future,” said Gonzalez.
Congressional gridlock has stalled bills aimed at adding more resources at the border to conduct interviews on whether asylum claims are credible.
Both Gonzalez and Cortina said without immigration reform, the problems seen along with border and in court are likely to continue.