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Backlogged Immigration Courts Brace for Flood of Asylum Cases


The number of immigrants coming to the southern borders, which numbered more than 170,000 in March 2021 alone, has risen significantly in recent months, mainly concerning families and unaccompanied minors. The resulting influx of asylum cases is coming at a time when immigration courts are already greatly overburdened.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) reports that when Trump took office in 2017, 542,411 deportation cases were pending in immigration court. By the start of 2021, TRAC data shows that that number has grown to almost two and a half times what it was four years ago, or 1,290,766 pending cases. This is the most extensive backlog of immigration court cases in history. Increased immigration enforcement tactics have led to this massive case increase. Additionally, the reopening of hundreds of thousands of cases that immigration judges had previously administratively closed because they did not fall within priorities for immigration enforcement at that time also have contributed to the existing backlog.

Furthermore, even if the Biden administration stopped all immigration enforcement upon taking office, it would take more than four years to handle the existing backlog of cases. The current immigration court system is already overwhelmed, so the courts will be unable to handle the additional expected crush of asylum cases.

Immigration Courts Differ Markedly from Other Federal Courts

One reason that immigration cases are overcrowding the court system is that they always go to trial. Unlike most criminal cases or civil cases that end in a plea agreement or other agreed disposition, immigration cases always must go to trial. This causes these cases to remain in the court system longer so that judges have adequate time to hold trials.

While adding immigration judges and courts seems like an obvious solution, these judges and court operations are subject to oversight and direction by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). As a result, the policies for handling and disposing of cases can vary dramatically from one administration to the next. Along with various advocacy groups, immigration judges have long supported the idea of restructuring the immigration court system into an independent entity, similar to federal tax courts. This move could help protect the internal workings of the court system from the often heavily influential opinions of the party in power. Making the immigration judiciary an independent body also could allow it to create standards leading to more efficient processing of cases.

Additionally, removing the courts from the DOJ and consolidating them into DHS may be an effective way to address the backlog of cases. Comparatively, immigration courts currently have 530 judges to handle more than 1.2 million cases, whereas DHS has 830 asylum officers to handle about 350,000 cases. Immigration courts disposed of only about 231,000 cases in 2020.

However, moving toward an independent immigration court system alone is unlikely to dramatically affect the vast backlog of cases unless coupled with comprehensive immigration reform. The sheer number of cases will require a combination of efforts to reach any resolution. To date, the Biden administration has made no concrete proposals to improve the system’s overall functioning. However, it has announced its intent to reduce the asylum claims process from years to months. Reforms would allow people who are entitled to asylum to receive that status and move on with their lives and promptly remove those who are ineligible for asylum.

Allow Us to Meet Your Immigration Law Needs

Bashyam Shah Immigration Law Group dedicates its efforts to all matters related to immigration law. We handle all types of immigration cases daily. This strong concentration and focus on immigration law allow us to keep up with the federal government’s constant changes and courts to immigration law and policy. Call us today at (919) 833-0840 and set up a time to talk to us about your case.