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President Biden’s attempt to deal efficiently with a new surge of migration following the end of Title 42 pandemic restrictions has focused new attention on a severe shortage of judges, the result of longstanding neglect that has overwhelmed the immigration court system with a backlog of more than two million cases.
The court system is riddled with yearslong delays and low morale as a work force of about 650 judges struggles to keep up with the volume of immigration cases, leaving undocumented immigrants who have long waited in the United States in limbo.
The bottleneck shows how the challenges of dealing with a surge in immigration do not end at the southern border. Even as scrutiny has focused on how Border Patrol agents will manage crowds of migrants, public officials and immigration experts say that bolstering the invisible work force of immigration judges is crucial to reforming the system.
Mr. Biden has made some progress — hiring more than 200 judges since he came into office — but is still falling short on his campaign pledge to double the number of immigration judges. Some of the judges will be working seven days a week for a time while the administration confronts the new surge, according to the Justice Department.
Eliza C. Klein, who left her position as an immigration judge in Chicago in April, said the latest increase in illegal border crossings will strain the understaffed work force as they prioritize migrants who crossed recently.
That will leave some older cases to languish even longer, she said.
“This is a great tragedy because it creates a second class of citizens,” Ms. Klein, who started working as an immigration judge in the Clinton administration, said of those immigrants who have been waiting years for an answer to their case. The oldest case Ms. Klein ever adjudicated had been pending in the court for 35 years, she said.
“It’s a disgrace,” Ms. Klein said. “My perspective, my thought, is that we’re not committed in this country to having a just system.”
While crowds of migrants continued to seek refuge in the United States after the lifting of Title 42, U.S. officials said the border remained relatively orderly. About 10,000 people crossed the border on Thursday, a historically large number, but that dropped significantly to about 6,200 on Friday.
Tens of thousands of migrants continued to wait in makeshift camps on both sides of the border for a chance to request sanctuary in the United States. The administration remained concerned about overcrowding; Border Patrol held more than 24,000 migrants in custody on Friday, well over the agency’s maximum capacity of roughly 20,000 in its detention facilities.
The backlog of immigration cases in the courts grew to one million in 2019 during the Trump administration, but it has increased since then to more than two million cases, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. The average time it takes to close an immigration case is about four years, according to the database. But some judges say they have cases that have been pending for more than a decade.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said this week that the backlog was a “powerful example of a broken immigration system,” as he pleaded for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.
In his 2023 budget request, Mr. Biden requested funding to hire 200 more judges. Congress only appropriated funds for an additional 100 judges, for a total of 734 positions. The government is still working to fill the slots.
Mimi Tsankov, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said that to truly address the backlog, the Biden administration would need to do more than simply hire more judges. She said that the government should increase funding for better technology and bigger legal teams, and that Congress should reform the nation’s immigration laws.
“The immigration courts are failing,” said Samuel B. Cole, the judge association’s executive vice president. “There needs to be broad systemic change.”
The judges essentially form the backbone of the nation’s immigration system. The group is under a division of the Justice Department, rather than the judiciary branch, and operates in nearly 70 courts around the nation. Many of the immigration cases are handled remotely, however, and some judges report that the software they use is prone to malfunctioning.
“I don’t think the United States has ever treated the adjudication for any immigration benefit as a priority for its immigration policy,” said Cristobal Ramón, an immigration consultant who has written for the Migration Policy Institute and the George W. Bush Institute.
The Title 42 border restrictions, enacted by the Trump administration, allowed border agents to rapidly turn away migrants without providing them a chance to apply for asylum, on the grounds that it would prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Now that the restrictions have been lifted, many migrants will once again be able to apply for asylum by securing an appointment through an app or by crossing and convincing an immigration officer that they have a credible fear of persecution at home. Regardless, they will likely wait for years in the United States before getting a resolution in their case.
Typically, after migrants cross the border, they are questioned by an asylum officer to determine if they have a credible fear of persecution at home. After meeting the standard, many are released into the United States and wait years until they are heard in court.
As president, Donald J. Trump derided the American asylum program, saying migrants fleeing poverty and corruption were part of a “scam” and a “hoax.” As he sought to curb illegal and legal immigration, Mr. Trump imposed a quota of completing 700 cases a year.
The union representing the nation’s immigration judges said that quota came at the expense of due process.
The union filed a labor complaint against Mr. Trump’s Justice Department after the agency’s executive office for immigration review sent court employees a link to a blog post from a white nationalist website. The post included antisemitic attacks on judges.
Judge Charles Honeyman, who spent 24 years as an immigration judge and retired in 2020, said he came away from his job believing the United States would need to do a better job of deterring fraud while protecting those who would be harmed in their home country.
When handling an asylum case, Mr. Honeyman said he would assess the person’s application and examine the state of their home country by reading reports from the State Department and nonprofits. Many of the applicants lacked attorneys; he believes some cases that he denied might have turned out differently if the migrants had had legal representation.
In trying to root out fraud, he would compare a person’s testimony with the answers they had given to an asylum officer or Border Patrol agent.
Most asylum applications are not granted, even if a person passes the initial credible-fear screening. Migrants must meet a much higher standard in court to be granted asylum, proving that they were or would be harmed based on their race, religion, nationality or political opinion. Fleeing solely for economic reasons does not make a person eligible for asylum.
Once a case is denied, the person is subject to deportation.
The Border Patrol is already holding thousands of migrants along the border in detention facilities, many of whom will ask for asylum.
“What happens to the cases left behind?” said Mr. Honeyman, who served in Philadelphia. “It seems overwhelmingly impossible to ever reach some kind of equilibrium where enough cases move along and justice is served.”
Mr. Biden removed the Trump-era quotas on immigration judges when he came into office and in 2021 instituted a system to try to streamline the processing of asylum cases.
The Biden administration placed about 110,000 cases involving new arrivals on a dedicated docket, with the aim of finishing them within a year. About 83 percent of those cases were closed but just 34 percent of the migrants found representation, according to the Syracuse database. Migrants have the right to an attorney, although the government is not required to pay for legal representation. Only 3,000 of the migrants were granted asylum.
Ms. Klein now fears her former colleagues will once again be forced to hurry through dozens of cases at a time.
“You’re being treated like all you’re doing is numbers. You’re just finishing a certain number of digits per day,” Ms. Klein said. “There has been a significant drop-off in the ability to take pride in your work.”
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.
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A severe shortage of immigration judges has led to long delays for asylum cases. The backlog is expected to grow now that pandemic-era border restrictions have been lifted.How long does an immigration court case take? ›
In California, the average time to complete an immigration case is 2-3 years, depending on whether the case involves a criminal conviction (which takes longer).How long does an immigration court hearing last? ›
The immigration court will schedule the individual hearing for a block of time ranging from one to four hours. During the hearing, the court will hear testimony and review evidence presented by you and the ICE attorney.How many immigration judges are there 2023? ›
OCIJ provides overall program direction and establishes priorities for more than 650 immigration judges located in 69 immigration courts and three adjudications centers throughout the Nation. Sheila McNulty was appointed as Chief Immigration Judge in April 2023.How many immigration courts are there in the US? ›
There are over 60 immigration courts, and each of these often hears cases at several locations throughout the United States.Why are immigration cases taking so long? ›
One major reason for the slower review times is that immigration forms have significantly increased in length over the last two decades, from fewer than 200 pages total in 2003 to more than 700 pages total in 2023. Overall, 93% of USCIS forms have grown in length since their introduction.Why isn t my immigration case taking so long? ›
Many factors impact processing times, including the number of applications, petitions, or requests we receive, workload allocations, and staffing levels, among other factors. Case-specific factors may also make an individual adjudication more complex, requiring additional adjudicative time.How much does a U.S. Immigration Judge make? ›
How much does an Immigration Judge make in Los Angeles, California? As of May 10, 2023, the average annual pay for an Immigration Judge in Los Angeles is $60,893 a year. Just in case you need a simple salary calculator, that works out to be approximately $29.28 an hour.How many legal immigrants are allowed in the U.S. each year? ›
The body of law governing U.S. immigration policy is called the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA allows the United States to grant up to 675,000 permanent immigrant visas each year across various visa categories.What is the most a Immigration Judge can get paid? ›
The salary range for an Immigration Judge job is from $63,323 to $79,938 per year in the United States. Click on the filter to check out Immigration Judge job salaries by hourly, weekly, biweekly, semimonthly, monthly, and yearly.
How Long Does It Take for an Immigration Judge to Make a Decision? There is often a large backlog of immigration cases, meaning it can take months to years for an immigration case to be decided. In some states, it'll take a couple up to three years, depending on the applicant's criminal records (or lack of them).How many immigration judges do we need? ›
OCIJ provides overall program direction and establishes priorities for approximately 600 immigration judges located 68 immigration courts and three adjudications centers throughout the Nation.Can immigration judge granted green card? ›
If an immigration judge (IJ) granted you permanent residence during immigration court proceedings or you were granted permanent residence by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and you have not yet received your green card, please schedule an appointment with your local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ( ...Are U.S. immigration courts backlogged? ›
The backlog of immigration cases in the courts grew to one million in 2019 during the Trump administration, but it has increased since then to more than two million cases, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.How many immigration court cases are pending? ›
The immigration courts require urgent attention to address the 1.3 million case backlog that is severely delaying resolution on all cases—with an average wait time exceeding four years—including cases that require urgent attention, such as those seeking asylum and humanitarian relief.What to do if immigration is taking too long? ›
- Submit an e-Request to USCIS if your case is beyond the published processing times. ...
- You may also call the USCIS Contact Center at 1-800-375-5283.
You can generally request expedited processing by calling the USCIS Contact Center at 800-375-5283 (TTY 800-767-1833) or by asking Emma after you have obtained a receipt notice.Can you sue immigration for taking too long? ›
Yes. If there have been unreasonable delays in your case, you may file a complaint against the Immigration Service in the Federal Court, and the Court can force the Immigration Service to make a decision in your case. Bear in mind that this decision can be positive or negative.Why is the immigration process so hard? ›
Today, most lawful means of entering the country take years because of overwhelmed immigration agencies, rising levels of global migration and a limit on the number of certain visas, all of which have culminated in a massive backlog of people trying to get to the U.S.
On an average day we:
Adjudicate more than 32,500 requests for various immigration benefits. Process 3,700 applications to sponsor relatives and future spouses. Analyze nearly 550 tips, leads, cases and detections for potential fraud, public safety and national security concerns.
1. Marriage to U.S. Citizen. This is the fastest way to immigrate. Typically, the process lasts from six to nine months, after which a temporary Green Card is received.Can I write to an immigration judge? ›
The letter should be addressed to “Honorable Immigration Judge.” • Introduce yourself, your immigration status, and address. If you are doing so in a professional capacity, letterhead is sufficient and no need to include a personal address.How do you address an immigration judge? ›
(a) Addressing the Immigration Judge — The immigration judge should be addressed as either “Your Honor” or “Judge __.” See Chapter 4.3 (References to Parties and the Immigration Judge). The parties should stand when the immigration judge enters and exits the courtroom.Who pays judges salaries USA? ›
Federal judge salaries in the United States are determined by the United States Congress and are governed in part by the United States Constitution, depending in part on the court on which the judge sits.What country takes in the most immigrants? ›
The United States has more international migrants than any other country. With nearly 51 million migrants in 2020, the U.S. leads the world on this measure by a wide margin.What are the 4 types of immigrants? ›
When immigrating to the US, there are four different types of immigration status categories that individuals may fall into: citizens, residents, non-immigrants, and undocumented immigrants.Where do most US immigrants come from? ›
Mexico is the top origin country of the U.S. immigrant population.What state has the highest paid judge? ›
The highest paid general jurisdiction court judges are in the District of Columbia ($218,600), Illinois ($216,297) and California ($214,601). The lowest paid are in Northern Mariana Islands ($120,000), Puerto Rico ($89,600) and American Samoa ($64,365).What are immigration judges called? ›
An immigration judge, formerly known as a special inquiry officer, is an employee of the United States Department of Justice. An immigration judge decides cases of aliens in various types of removal proceedings.
Immigration judges shall administer oaths, receive evidence, and interrogate, examine, and cross-examine aliens and any witnesses. Subject to §§ 1003.35 and 1287.4 of this chapter, they may issue administrative subpoenas for the attendance of witnesses and the presentation of evidence.What are the odds of winning an immigration case? ›
Yes, the reality is once served a Notice To Appear at immigration court, the odds of winning are far less than 50-50. But that does not mean you cannot be one of the fortunate ones. Significant differences may exist between your case and the ones you heard about on the news.Does lawyer speed up the immigration process? ›
The immigration process can be intimidating and take a long time, but hiring an immigration attorney to support you with your case can speed up the process and help you meet your goals.Can you get deported if you have a pending case? ›
It is important to remember that you cannot be deported while your case is still pending. However, if you miss an immigration court hearing, you will most likely receive a deportation order.What disqualifies you from getting a green card? ›
This means if you have a conviction for any of these three types of crimes, you can't get a green card: Aggravated felonies. Illegal drug involvement. Crimes involving moral turpitude.Is it hard to win cancellation of removal? ›
Cancellation of removal cases involves high standards and is very hard to win. If you are doubtful of your case, speak with your lawyer about other options you may have.What can cause deportation with a green card? ›
- So-called “crimes of moral turpitude,”
- So-called “aggravated felonies,”
- Drug offenses (other than possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use),
- Firearms offenses,
- Domestic violence crimes, and.
- Fraud against the government.
At an individual hearing, you may present evidence and give testimony that you are eligible for immigration status and should remain in the United States. Your application could be based on a family relationship, fear of harm in your home country, or your time living in the United States.What happens in immigration court hearing? ›
In these hearings, immigration judges determine whether respondents should be ordered removed from the United States or granted relief or protection from removal (such as adjustment of status, asylum, cancellation of removal, or other remedies provided by immigration law) and permitted to remain in the country.What happens after an immigration court hearing? ›
As we have seen throughout this blog, the individual hearing in the Immigration Court is the final hearing of the immigrant. As a result, the judge will take the evidence provided and decide whether or not the immigrant will be deported. Hopefully, the aliens will not receive a deportation order .
Number of pending cases is 2.1 million, even as Justice Department hires more judges. Federal immigration judges are finishing cases at a faster rate than ever before, but a yearslong backlog of pending cases continues to grow.How do I expedite an immigration court hearing? ›
You can generally request expedited processing by calling the USCIS Contact Center at 800-375-5283 (TTY 800-767-1833) or by asking Emma after you have obtained a receipt notice.What are the odds of winning a deportation case? ›
Yes, the reality is once served a Notice To Appear at immigration court, the odds of winning are far less than 50-50. But that does not mean you cannot be one of the fortunate ones. Significant differences may exist between your case and the ones you heard about on the news.What happens if immigration judge denies your case? ›
In California, that federal court is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. You will have 30 days from the Board's denial decision to file a petition with the federal court, asking them to review the Board's decision. The federal court case can take several years to resolve.What does it mean there are no future hearings for this case? ›
Meaning that no future hearings will be scheduled in the Respondent's case until either the Department or Respondent's counsel moves to put the case back on the Court's active docket.What are the two types of immigration hearings? ›
As in criminal cases, there are two types of court dates in Immigration Court: one is called Master Calendar Hearing (MCH), and the other is the Individual Hearing (IH). The court date in the Notice to Appear (NTA) that the applicant first receives will be for an MCH date.How long does deportation hearing take? ›
Most deportation cases in California take between two and three years before the court issues a final decision. Foreigners eligible for deportation have legal rights, including the right to present their side of the story to the court, with the help of a foreign language interpreter if necessary, and to hire a lawyer.Are immigration courts backlogged? ›
The backlog of immigration cases in the courts grew to one million in 2019 during the Trump administration, but it has increased since then to more than two million cases, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.Are immigration cases being dismissed? ›
As of the end of September 2022, Immigration Court judges dismissed a total of 63,586 cases because Department of Homeland Security officials, chiefly Border Patrol agents, are not filing the actual “Notice to Appear” (NTA) with the Immigration Court. Without a filed NTA, the case cannot proceed.What are the stages of an immigration case? ›
Immigration proceedings happen in roughly three stages: initial hearings, known as “master calendar hearings;” hearings focused on the individual, known as “individual hearings” or sometimes "merit hearings;" and post-hearing proceedings for anyone granted relief or for orders of voluntary departure or removal.