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Case backlog at immigration courts could hit more than 1 million

17 Mar

By Lomi Kriel

The backlog in Houston’s overwhelmed downtown immigration court grew more than 460 percent between 2010 and 2016, swelling from about 6,400 to 36,100 pending cases, according to a new analysis released Tuesday.

With only six immigration judges on the bench, Houston’s court could see its case load double again in three years if no more are added, found the report by Human Rights First, a national nonprofit. In six years, the number of pending cases across the country could reach more than 1 million, twice as much as it is now.

The backlog means both immigrants with a valid claim to stay in the United States and those who should be quickly deported wait years to have their cases resolved. In Houston, an average immigration case can take more than two years to wind its way through the process but many immigrants and asylum seekers wait five years, according to the report.

Texas immigration courts have the highest backlog in the country after California with nearly 82,000 cases pending, according to an analysis of court records by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Tuesday’s report comes as budget writers in Congress examine funding for the immigration court system next year. Human Rights First and a chorus of other advocates have urged lawmakers to support 75 additional immigration judge teams for 2017.

“Year after year, the backlog in the immigration courts continues to grow, leaving those seeking protection in legal limbo for years and undercutting the integrity of our nation’s immigration system,” Eleanor Acer, director of the nonprofit’s refugee protection program, said in a statement. “Unless Congress takes action now, the problem will only continue to get worse.”

Across the country, more than 474,000 immigration cases are pending in front of only 262 immigration judges, eight of whom were sworn in last week.

LaFondra Lynch, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review overseeing the courts, said the agency’s 2016 budget provides for 55 new immigration judges. She said it continuously monitors case loads nationwide so that it can temporarily transfer judges or use video conferences if necessary.

“The last several years have presented challenges,” she said in a statement, adding that the agency is also improving docket policies and using technology to allow it to hear cases more quickly. “(But) since 2014 we have strengthened the immigration court system.”

Experts from across the political spectrum, including the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and the American Bar Association, say more must be done.

The crux of the problem is that funding for the beleaguered court system has languished for years while revenue for the agencies detaining immigrants — Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection — had skyrocketed. The courts received about $304 million in 2013, for instance, compared to $18 billion for the arresting agencies.

The crisis escalated in 2014 when more than 67,000 unaccompanied Central American children and families flooded across the Texas border, many of them escaping gang violence and asking for asylum.

In response, the Obama administration directed the courts to expedite their cases, in part to reinforce a message to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that such immigrants would not be allowed to easily stay here.

Advocates say fast-tracking these cases through the system means attorneys don’t have the time they need to adequately argue for asylum, in particular when it comes to cases involving children, who are often traumatized and challenging to represent. They say many refugees with a real need for protection are wrongly being sent home.

The approach also means some immigrants’ hearings have been delayed indefinitely, which can impede time-sensitive cases and jeopardize chances of gaining legal residency. In Houston, for instance, Mexicans, who make up the largest portion of the case load, currently face wait times of more than three years.