WASHINGTON – Immigration attorneys and immigration rights advocates are hopeful a recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court will help bring down the historic number of cases backlogged in our immigration court system.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse maintained by Syracuse University, there are 2.3 million cases pending in immigration court. TRAC data also shows it takes an average of 686 days for a case to work through the immigration court system.
A ruling on Friday cleared the way for President Joe Biden’s administration to set guidelines for the arrest and deportation of those caught living in the country illegally. These guidelines come from a 2021 memo issued by the Department of Homeland Security. The memo reads the priorities for removal from the U.S. are those who pose a risk to national security, public safety and border security. The memo further gives federal prosecutors the discretion to decide which cases to pursue, given the government does not have the resources to pursue everyone living in the U.S. illegally.
Texas and Louisiana filed a lawsuit to block the Biden administration’s plans for enforcement guidelines, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled neither state had legal standing to bring the suit.
“Without a doubt, it’s going to help,” said immigration attorney Raed Gonzalez. “They’re giving an assurance that these are the ones that we need to get out now. These are the important ones that we should concentrate on. So everybody else, it’s not a priority at this time.”
Gonzalez said he hopes the recent ruling will also bring uniformity in how federal prosecutors handle removal cases. He said prosecutors’ and judges’ priorities can vary from court to court. Gonzalez said he’s seen cases put into removal proceedings for minor offenses or simple mistakes when an immigrant has otherwise been living, working and paying taxes in the U.S.
“There are some cases that we see every day that don’t make any sense,” Gonzalez said. “Somebody missed a fingerprint appointment; they didn’t get the letter. And certainly, the case is denied and referred to the court to be placed in removal proceedings. But then again, once everybody realizes he was applying to become a legal permanent resident, or is legally married to a U.S. citizen, why does the case continue?”
Immigration attorney Charles Foster echoes Gonzalez’s statements but warns that just because a case is deemed a low-priority for removal, or even dismissed, doesn’t mean it can’t be resurrected if the priorities of a new presidential administration change.
“That doesn’t mean that they cannot a year later, or a month later, or 10 years later still put that person back into immigration court proceedings,” said Foster.
Foster also points out the Supreme Court ruling does not provide any long-term solutions to the wider immigration debate.
“The impact is very dramatic, but the decision was really more based upon understanding whether or not the states actually had standing to challenge a federal immigration policy,” said Foster.
Executive director of the immigrant rights organization FIEL, Cesar Espinosa, said he has had to warn some migrants not to overstate what this ruling does to their case.
“The Supreme Court didn’t say we’re going to stop deportations,” said Espinosa. “Deportations are not going to stop.”
Espinosa said if anything, the ruling only further reinforces the need for immigration reform. He said even if a case is considered low-priority or is dismissed it does not mean an immigrant is on any better legal footing in the US, it only means they are currently not a target for removal.
Gonzalez, Foster and Espinosa all said they hope prioritizing cases will help whittle down the backlog by clearing out non-priority cases, which in turn, should help other cases move faster through the courts.