The United States grapples with a staggering immigration court backlog, surpassing 3 million cases, driven primarily by a surge in asylum-seeking migrants at the U.S. border. In November, this backlog soared from 1.9 million cases in September 2022, an alarming trend noted by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which meticulously tracks federal immigration data.
To provide context, this backlog now outnumbers the population of Chicago, ranking as the nation’s third-largest city. Unfortunately, some individuals may not secure a court date for years, as judges wrestle with caseloads often exceeding 4,000 cases each.
This mounting challenge emerges as a significant political issue for President Joe Biden, with immigration at the forefront as the 2024 election year approaches. In response to this crisis, the Biden administration has taken action, hiring 302 judges for the nation’s immigration courts. Furthermore, the White House’s 2024 budget request includes funding to employ an additional 150 judges.
Kathryn Mattingly, press secretary for the office, underscores the agency’s commitment to reducing the immigration court backlog, detailing measures such as streamlining hearings for simpler cases and encouraging the use of pre-hearing conferences to expedite matters that do not necessitate significant court time.
The surge in migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking asylum or refuge, often results in them receiving a “notice to appear” in one of the nation’s 600-plus immigration courtrooms, typically located in their intended destination city. Immigration judges are tasked with adjudicating asylum claims, holding significant discretion in approving or denying them.
This backlog underscores the substantial challenges faced by immigration judges in keeping up with caseloads. Despite an increase in the number of judges from 517 in 2020 to 734 in October, the courts have struggled to match the mounting caseloads, often exceeding 4,500 cases per judge.
While the backlog presents significant challenges, it also offers more individuals the opportunity to apply for asylum, rather than facing immediate denial at the border. Notably, TRAC’s analysis of 25 years of data reveals that immigration judges granted asylum or other immigration relief in 13% of cases.
The surge in migration to the Southwest border resulted in nearly 2.5 million migrant encounters in fiscal 2023, setting records dating back to 1960. The first two months of fiscal 2024 (October and November) reported over 483,000 encounters, indicating historically high levels of mass migration across the Western Hemisphere.
Unfortunately, the backlog has led to immigration court dates scheduled years into the future, presenting significant challenges for migrants seeking resolution for their cases.
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