Immigration Backlog Rises for Another Year

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 297,551 by the end of September 2011, according to very timely government enforcement data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The case backlog has continued to grow — up 4.2 percent — since TRAC's previous report for data up to the end of July 2011, and 60 percent higher than levels at the end of FY 2008 (see Figure 1).

Wait times slightly decreased since our last report. The average time these pending cases have been waiting in the Immigration Courts of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is now 489 days, compared with 490 days at the end of July this year.

Backlog by Charge

A mere 8.3 percent of the pending caseload was made up of "criminal" cases — that is, those charged with criminal activities, actions adverse to national security, or aiding terrorism. This is down from 9.1 percent at the end of fiscal year 2010.

In contrast, 91 percent of the current backlog involved individuals charged with violating immigration rules, e.g., entering the country illegally, entering legally but overstaying their visas, or violating other procedural requirements. This category of pending cases has climbed sharply this year, up from 236,415 at the end of FY 2010 to 270,159 at the end of September 2011.

The average days cases have been pending are longer for individuals facing immigration charges (497 days) compared with those facing criminal charges (403 days). Because cases with immigration charges tend to move through the courts more slowly, they accumulate and thus make up a larger proportion of the pending caseload than of court filings generally. (See TRAC report examining ICE deportation filings by charge. For a detailed listing of the actual charges ICE has used, see this table.)

Among individual Immigration Courts, Memphis, Kansas City and Charlotte had the lowest proportion of criminal cases (2.9%), followed by New Orleans (3.1%) and Elizabeth (3.4%). Baltimore and New York also had 4 percent or fewer criminal cases in their pending workload.

In only two courts — Napanoch (New York) and York (Pennsylvania) — did criminal cases make up more than half of the court backlog. All other courts — whether handling detained or nondetained individuals — had only a minority of criminal cases in their pending caseloads

Full details — by charge, state, nationality, Immigration Court and hearing location — can be viewed in TRAC's backlog application, now updated with data through September 30, 2011.

Figure 2. TRAC's Immigration Court Backlog 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 654 days, down from 666 days two months ago. Massachusetts average wait times increased to 607 days from 603 days over the same time period. Michigan took third place with with an average time of 541 days pending cases have been waiting in the Detroit Immigration Court — up from 525 days two months ago.

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 had the longest wait times of 883 days — almost twice the national average of 489 days. Other nationalities within the top five in terms of the length their cases had been pending were Indonesia (848), Albania (659), Iran (651) and Pakistan (649).

Highest Growth Rates in Pending Cases
Among individual Immigration Courts, and considering only those with at least 1,000 pending cases at the beginning of last year, the court with the fastest buildup during FY 2011 was the Immigration Court in New Orleans, Louisiana, where pending cases jumped by 80 percent. The Houston, Texas court ranked second, with a growth spurt of 41 percent during this year. Las Vegas, Nevada (up 37 percent), Phoenix, Arizona (up 36 percent), and San Antonio, Texas (up 36  percent ) made up the remaining top five locations experiencing the highest growth rates in case backlogs.

Courts With Declining Case Backlogs
Some courts, however, saw a decline in their number of pending cases during FY 2011. Again considering only courts with at least 1,000 pending cases, the courts with the sharpest decline were New York Varick Street, New York and Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. These two courts saw their backlog reduced by 26 percent. This was followed by the Houston, Texas — Detained court where the pending caseload dropped by almost 12 percent during this fiscal year. Baltimore, Maryland dropped by 9 percent and Oakdale, Louisiana by 8 percent.