New Judge Hiring Fails to Stem Rising Immigration Case Backlog

Figure 1. Immigration Court Backlog
Click for larger image.

The number of cases awaiting resolution before the Immigration Courts reached a new all-time high of 275,316 by the beginning of May 2011, according to very timely government enforcement data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The case backlog has continued to grow — up 2.8 percent — since TRAC's previous report four months ago, and 48 percent higher than levels at the end of FY 2008 (see Figure 1).

Wait times have increased since our previous report. The average time these pending cases have been waiting in the Immigration Courts of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is now 482 days, compared with 467 days at the end of last year.

Judge Hiring and Backlog Reduction

The continuing rise in the court backlog occurred despite the record-breaking pace of hiring that took place during the past 12 months, with 44 new Immigration Judges added to the bench. (For numbers, see hiring by court table.)

Hiring by Court

Many of the judge vacancies finally filled had been open since at least 2006.  See earlier TRAC report.

However, this long overdue hiring initiative may be at an end.  In testimony May 18, 2011 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, newly appointed EOIR Director, Juan P. Osuna, noted that recruitment efforts had been "cut short due to budgetary restrictions on hiring."  With the freeze, Osuna predicted  IJ ranks would fall.  Indeed, the Director stated they anticipate the loss of "approximately 10 immigration judges per year" through "[n]ormal attrition."    

There are implications of the hiring freeze for case backlogs as well. With fewer judges, unless the pace of new court filings slackens, pending case backlogs appear likely to continue to rise, accompanied by ever longer wait times.

Details on the Current Court Backlog

Full details — by state, nationality, Immigration Court and hearing locations — can be viewed in TRAC's backlog application, now updated with data through May 4th, 2011.

Figure 2. TRAC's Immigration Court Caseload Tool. (click to use the tool)

See also TRAC's previous backlog report and listing of earlier TRAC report reports in this series beginning in 2008 examining the volume of cases, wait times, as well as the number of immigration judges available.

Selected Highlights

Wait Times by State
Wait times continue to be longest in California with 660 days, up from 639 days four months ago. Massachusetts average wait times increased from 615 to 617 days over the same time period. Utah moved up to third place with an average time of 537 days cases have been waiting in the Salt Lake City Immigration Court — up from 472 at the time of our previous report.

Wait Times by Nationality
Among nationalities, and limiting comparisons to the 50 countries with the most individuals in queue, Armenians with cases pending before the Immigration Courts currently still have the longest wait time of 896 days — almost twice the national average of 482 days. Other nationalities within the top five in terms of the length their cases had been pending were Indonesia (832), Albania (667), Iran (640) and Pakistan (630).

Highest Growth Rates in Pending Cases
Among individual Immigration Courts, and considering only those with at least 1,000 pending cases, the court with the fastest buildup during FY 2011 was the Immigration Court in San Antonio, Texas, where pending cases jumped by 26 percent. The court in New Orleans ranked second, with a growth spurt of 20 percent during this year. Phoenix, Arizona (up 19 percent), Oakdale, Louisiana (up 19 percent), and Houston, Texas (up 18 percent) made up the remaining top five locations experiencing the highest growth rates in case backlogs. Portland, Oregon again just missed out being included in these ranks with a growth rate of 17 percent.

Courts With Declining Case Backlogs
Some courts, however, saw a decline in their number of pending cases during the first seven months of FY 2011. Again considering only courts with at least 1,000 pending cases, the court with the sharpest decline was in Lumpkin, Georgia. That court saw its backlog reduced by 63 percent. This was followed by the New York Detention Center court where the pending caseload dropped by 40 percent during this fiscal year. The Houston Detained court in Texas dropped by 25 percent, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico by 24 percent, and Salt Lake City, Utah by 10 percent.