Backlog in Immigration Cases Continues to Climb

New Tool Offers Caseload Data by States, Courts and Nationality

Cases awaiting a hearing in the nation's Immigration Courts reached an all-time high of 228,421 in the first months of FY 2010, according to very timely government enforcement data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The current number of pending cases is up 23 percent just since the end of FY 2008, and 82 percent higher than it was ten years ago. See Figure 1 and supporting table.

Figure 1. Immigration Court Backlog.
(click for larger image)

TRAC's analysis of the data also showed that the average time these pending cases have been waiting in the Immigration Courts of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) inched up to a new high of 439 days.

As will be described more fully below, TRAC has just added the Immigration Court Caseload Tool to its free public site, providing the public a first-of-its kind way to obtain backlog information by state and for each of the regional courts and hearing locations operated by the EOIR throughout the country. TRAC's Caseload Tool also allows users to obtain this information for any nationality group.

Period Total IJs IJs with
Admin. Duties
Regular IJs
2006 230 12 218
2007 219 12 207
2008 226 12 214
2009 238 9 229
2010 239 12 227
Table 1. Immigration Judges on Payroll.
(click for more details)

Even as the annual count of backlogged matters has continued to grow, an effort launched in the last years of the Bush Administration to increase the number of specialized judges who process them appears to have made little progress in the first year of the Obama administration. Indeed, since TRAC's last report on Immigration Court resources, the slow pace of hiring new judges has not kept up with judge turnover. Thus, between April of last year and now, the number of regular judges has actually declined — from 229 in 2009 to 227 in 2010. See adjacent Table 1.

Period Existing
in 2006
2006 24 0 24
2007 35 0 35
2008 28 0 28
2009 16 3 19
2010 15 33 48
Table 2. Vacant Immigration
Judge Positions

Here is the history. In 2006 Alberto Gonzales, then the Attorney General, called for an effort to seek more funding from Congress for the Immigration Courts, an administrative unit of the Justice Department. A key factor behind this request was an unusual number of decisions from federal appellate courts that were highly critical of the EOIR. At that time the Court had a total of 24 unfilled vacancies. Now — three and a half years later — although more positions have been allocated to the court neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has been able to fill the vacancies that existed in 2006. Although the attorney general's call for more resources did increase the number of judges that EOIR was authorized to recruit and hire, it so far has had little impact on how many have been hired. In December 2009, according to the EOIR, the number of unfilled judge positions in the court had reached 46. And with two additional departures as of January 12, 2010 the Court now has 48 unfilled judge positions (see Table 2). This means that 17 percent of the judge positions — one out of six — are currently unfilled!

Figure 2. Decrease in Time
to Dispose of Each Matter.
(click for larger image)

The failure of the Justice Department to hire a sufficient number of new judges and the very recent growth in incoming matters have together been responsible for the backlog of pending cases reaching a record number. (Until the current peak, the largest number of pending cases was recorded in FY 2005.) One direct outcome of the two forces is that in FY 2009 the average time available per judge for every matter was only 70 minutes. Except for one year, this is the shortest average time available for the consideration of an individual immigration matter from 1998 to the present. See Figure 2 and supporting details.

Backlogs of Pending Cases Vary Greatly Across the Country

National trends, however, don't begin to convey what's happening in the individual courts and hearing locations across the country. While in many locales the backlogs are increasing, pending cases in others have actually declined.

About the Research

This report utilizes three primary data sources: internal Immigration Court records, agency payroll records, and information on vacant positions. More specifically:

See more...

Wait times also vary markedly from one court to the next. At one extreme there are the Los Angeles and Boston Immigration Courts where pending cases have now been waiting for an average of 713 days and 612 days, respectively. At the other extreme, there is the Florence, Arizona Immigration Court with an average wait time of 75 days and the Miami (Krome) Immigration Court with 82 days.

As noted briefly above, to provide the public comprehensive information about the Immigration Court backlogs and wait times by state and in each EOIR court and hearing location and by nationality, TRAC has developed and posted its special new Immigration Court Caseload Tool that lets you directly query the vast quantity of timely material we have obtained under the FOIA. Click on the image below to go to TRAC's Immigration Court Caseload Tool.

Figure 3. TRAC's Immigration Court Caseload Tool.
(click to use the tool)

Here are some selected highlights.

Pending Cases and Wait Times by State

California led the nation as the state with the largest number of cases pending before the Immigration Courts — 59,451 of them — or about one quarter (26%) of the national total. New York, with 16% of all such matters, ranked second. Others in the top tier included Florida and Texas with 8%, and Illinois and Massachusetts with 4%. See Figure 4; use the Caseload Tool or see supporting table for a list of all states.

Figure 4. Top Ten States for
Number of Pending Cases.
(click for larger image)

However, only four states ranked in the top 10 in terms of pending cases and were also in the top 10 for wait times. California again topped the list with an average wait time for its current pending cases of 619 days — 41 percent longer than the national average of 439 days. Massachusetts, sixth in the ranking in terms of pending cases, was second with an average wait time of 612 days, just under that for California. Rounding out the top 5 in terms of wait times were Michigan (503 days), Nebraska (498 days), and Virginia (478 days). See Figure 5; use the Caseload Tool or see supporting table for a list of wait times by state.

Figure 5. Top Ten States for
Length of Time Cases Pending.
(click for larger image)

The other top 10 states in terms of pending cases had below average wait times. Texas, for example, which was fourth in terms of pending cases had a wait time of 218 days — just half of the U.S. average. The lowest wait time were in Louisiana with 195 days, closely followed by Nevada with 197 days and Tennessee with 214 days. Guam, a U.S. territory, also had a wait time towards the bottom of 212 days.

The backlogs of pending cases are driven by numerous factors. Chief among them is the number of available judges in a particular locality relative to the caseload demand. Caseloads may be going up in one region or part of the country, and going down in another, due to factors such as the changing enforcement efforts of the Department of Homeland Security and the facilities where detained individuals are transferred. Also important is the number of available judges. One court may have added more judges, while another may have recently lost a judge whether through retirement, promotion, transfer or death.

Adding to this mix of forces is the different composition of cases that each hearing location handles. For example, hearing locations at detention facilities generally have shorter wait times since EOIR usually assigns a higher priority to keeping backlogs in check at such facilities.

Backlogs and Wait Times by Nationality

The current backlog of pending immigration matters includes individuals from 221 countries. While individuals from Mexico, not surprisingly, make up the largest component of the pending cases (27%), this is a lower proportion than occurs in all proceedings handled by the Immigration Courts. For example, Mexico was the alien's nationality in 44 percent of all proceedings completed last year. Cases that take less time to dispose of may open and close within the same fiscal year, thus not showing up in the pending caseload at the end of the fiscal year. However, the same case would be included as part of case completions. As we discuss later, the length of time cases are pending varies across nationality groups.

Stated another way, three out of every four of the individuals (74%) in the current Immigration Courts pending caseload are from nations other than Mexico. After that country, the nation with largest number of individuals is China (9%). Two Central American countries — El Salvador with slightly less than 9 percent and Guatemala with 8 percent — followed closely after China. The top ten nationalities in the Immigration Courts' current caseload is shown in Figure 6; use the Caseload Tool or see detailed table for listings of top 50 nationalities or an alphabetical listing of all nationalities.

Figure 6. Top Ten Nationalities for
Number of Pending Cases.
(click for larger image)

The nationalities with extremely long wait times are a quite different set. Limiting consideration to the individuals from those nations in the top 50 list in terms of the number of pending cases, individuals from Armenia currently have the longest average wait times — 956 days, or over twice the national average wait time of 439 days. This can be explained in part because these individuals are primarily in the Los Angeles Immigration Court which has the highest average wait times in the country (see Caseload Tool). Note that Falls Church, Virginia (EOIR Headquarters) has a slightly longer wait time but this concerns a single unusual case.

Other nationalities with particular long wait times are Indonesia (699 days), followed by Lebanon (648 days), Albania (646 days), and Iran (610 days). The nationalities in the top ten are shown in Figure 7 and its supporting details; use the Caseload Tool or see this table for a list of all nationalities.

Figure 7. Top Ten Nationalities for
Length of Time Cases Pending
(click for larger image)

There are a variety of reasons why the individuals from different nations face such a wide range in backlogs and wait time. Among them are the concentration of these individuals in different parts of the country, the geographic distribution of judges by the EOIR, the level and adequacy of legal representation, the frequency claims for asylum or relief from removal occur, as well as special circumstances making it more challenging to gather needed documentation from one country than another.