A ballooning backlog of immigration cases
A record 1.6 million case backlog in U.S. immigration court leaves asylum-seekers feeling hopeless
Florida resident Pilar Castrillo is a South American immigrant seeking asylum in the United States, but her wait has seemed never-ending. The former Venezuelan electoral worker says that after her country’s dictatorial government threatened to jail her for refusing to manipulate election results, she feared for her life. In 2014 she sent her daughter Ana Baptista, then 17 years old, to the United States with a student visa to study English. Castrillo followed a few months later.
The two filed for asylum, a process that normally begins with a 1- to 4-hour-long interview, proceeds to a hearing in immigration court, and can eventually lead to naturalized citizenship. But Ana says their case is stuck in limbo. “The path to citizenship and residency was an estimated three to five years,” said Ana. “It’s been seven, without anything happening, not even the interview.”
A recent report from Syracuse University researchers shows that the backlog of immigration court cases has reached new heights and is growing faster than ever: December closed with 1,596,193 cases pending. “If every person with a pending immigration case were gathered together it would be larger than the population of Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the United States,” noted the report, published by Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The backlog is a problem for the overburdened immigration system and the people stuck waiting, but it’s too soon to say if the most recent solutions are working.
The U.S. immigration court system has been backlogged for decades. When President George W. Bush took office, it stood at just 149,338 cases. Immigration courts decide whether asylum seekers and foreigners whom the Department of Homeland Security has charged with breaking immigration law should be deported or granted a form of relief. Asylum cases are only a part of this backlog, but the number of defensive asylum applications—those filed by immigrants who are not already in the country legally on a different visa—has risen sharply since 2014.
Multiple presidents have unsuccessfully attempted to reduce the backlog by changing immigration rules, setting (or removing) quotas for immigration judges, and installing more judges. In 2009, the average wait time for a case was 14½ months. Many immigrants did not have lawyers, so the judge would spend time explaining the law and their rights. Translation also took up time, as many of the immigrants did not speak English.
But now the backlog is growing more quickly, and the average wait time is nearly five years. According to TRAC, immigration courts’ productivity slowed dramatically during the pandemic: Instead of 40,000 completed cases a month, the average dropped to 6,000. But the group noted the main contributor to the backlog’s increase since June 2021 was not the pace of case completions but a “recent deluge of new cases.”
Migrant arrivals at the U.S. southern border surged under President Trump, and the Biden administration saw an even bigger wave, with massive numbers of asylum-seekers arriving last year after hearing false rumors in their countries that President Joe Biden had opened the border. The largest three-month immigration court increase under Trump was nearly 100,000 cases between June and August 2019. But between October and December 2021, the backlog increased by nearly 140,000 cases.
Is there any feasible plan to reduce the backlog? Scott Andrew Fulks, an immigration lawyer based in Minnesota, said several measures are in place to try, but it’s too soon to know whether they’ll succeed. For example, some courts are scheduling shorter hearings that combine an asylum-seeker’s initial “master calendar” hearing with the longer individual hearing. Courts can also cancel the master calendar hearings and accept written pleadings from immigrants who have lawyers.
Meanwhile, the backlog is having consequences in the lives of the applicants. “Some clearly eligible asylum applicants cannot obtain a grant of asylum for many years which would, in turn, provide them the opportunity to petition their spouse and children who may remain in the location from where the applicant has fled,” Fulks said in an email. “The integrity of the court system is jeopardized when the matters at issue in an individual hearing occurred nearly 10 years prior: evidence is stale, and memories fade.”
For Pilar Castrillo and her daughter, it means living with an uncertain future. Every two years, they must renew their work permits. They hesitate to purchase property or make long-term decisions, not knowing when their case will proceed or what the verdict will be. Ana, who attends college in Boston, said when she explains to potential employers that she must regularly renew her work permit, they sometimes choose other applicants. She sees a therapist to deal with the stress.
Castrillo works for an Orlando-area nonprofit, Migrant Journey, that helps other asylum-seekers with necessities like groceries, schools, and language classes. She misses her parents and other family back in Venezuela and struggles to maintain hope: “I sometimes feel empty, because I am in the middle of nothing. … It’s so hard,” she said. “I feel exhausted from this waiting.”
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