Immigration Court Backlog Surpasses One Million Cases

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By: Margaret Potter, Staff Writer


Two years after taking office, the Trump administration enforced quotas on immigration judges in 2018 requiring each judge “…to clear seven hundred cases a year or get docked points on their performance evaluations.”[1] In addition to this burden on immigration judges, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions, changed the Department of Justice’s policy which reactivated more than 300,000 closed immigration cases.[2] These policies contributed to the record high number of cases backlogged in immigration courts, which was estimated to be 809,041 as of November 30, 2018 according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).[3] Now, as the government shutdown has entered it’s fifth week, immigration courts handling non-detained dockets, meaning cases of people who are not in immigration detention, are closed, about four hundred immigration judges have been furloughed, and as of January 11, 2019, immigration court cancellations have reached 42,726.[4] The TRAC estimates that the immigration court backlogged cases have now surpassed one million cases and that with each week that the shutdown continues the amount of cancelled hearings grows by 20,000 additional cases.[5]

Despite negotiations regarding the 2019 fiscal spending bill, the president refused to sign a bill absent $5.7 billion in funding towards the border wall, an action which culminated in the partial shutdown of the government on December 22, 2018.[6] After the shutdown began, immigration courts that handle non-detained dockets received notice from the Department of Justice that they would be closed during the shutdown and court appointments would be reset to future dates.[7] The Department of Justice has allowed court proceedings to continue for immigrants detained by U.S. authorities in immigration detention centers who are being held pending deportation.[8] The court staff continuing to hear detained immigrant cases may be working without pay.[9] Cases of non-detained immigrants consist of the majority of cases heard by U.S. immigration courts.[10]

The effects of over one million backlogged immigration court cases are burdensome for our immigration courts and the judges and are also ironic when juxtaposed with the Trump Administration’s immigration policies.

According to the TRAC, individuals whose cases have been canceled had been waiting anywhere between two to four years.[11] The TRAC now estimates due to the additional backlog created by the shutdown that three to four years could be added to these rescheduled dates.[12] This additional waiting time causes burden to both judges who must return to swollen dockets following the reopening of the government and the individuals who live with uncertainty while waiting for an immigration court to determine their status.[13]

Fortunately, however, pushing back these scheduled immigration cases could strengthen individual’s claims for status or qualify immigrants for another status while waiting.[14] In other words, the delay in hearing could cause immigrants who would otherwise be deported to build a valid claim to remain. This consequence is ironic to the criticisms of the Trump Administration officials who have blamed long processing times as a major factor in allowing immigrants without strong cases to stay in the U.S. rather than be deported.[15]

In January, a letter from the Office of Management and Budget to Congress outlined President Trump’s plan to increase the number of immigration judges once the government reopens.[16] This position contradicts the opinion the President expressed in June 2018 via Twitter saying that “…hiring many thousands of judges and going through a long and complicated legal process is not the way to go, will always be dysfunctional. People must be stopped at the border and told they cannot come into the U.S. illegally.”[17] In response to the President’s June 2018 tweet, Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges disagreed with the President pointing out that the problem in immigration courts is not the amount of people entering the U.S. illegally but rather the unequal distribution of resources to law enforcement agencies in comparison to resources distributed to immigration courts.[18] Judge Tabaddor went on to say that the solution to our burdened immigration courts would be to distribute equal resources to both law enforcement budgets as well as immigration court budgets while also increasing the number of judges.[19] In June 2018, the immigration court backlog had not reached the 800,000 case load it did in November 2018, let alone the one million case backlog. One might question whether given the current circumstances, whether additional judges be enough or whether immigration courts need the additional budget resources Judge Trabaddor requested in June 2018.

While it is uncertain when the government shutdown will come to an end and the government reopens, it is even more uncertain what immigration courts will do with a backlog that has surpassed one million cases.






[2] Id.


[4] Id.

[5] Id.







[12] Id.



[15] Id.



[18] Id.

[19] Id.

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