Immigration Court Dispositions Drop 9.3 Percent Under Trump

The latest available case-by-case data indicate that Immigration Court dispositions have dropped by 9.3 percent since President Trump assumed office. While a larger proportion of this declining total consist of removal orders, cases closed during the past five months (February 2017-June 2017) totaled only 77,084 cases as compared with 84,956 for the same five-month period during 2016[1].

This decline has contributed to the court's growing backlog of cases. The backlog reached a record 610,524 cases as of June 30, 2017. This is up from 598,943 at the end of May.

Shifting administrative policies under President Trump contributed substantially to the decline in overall court dispositions. Despite the appointment of additional immigration judges, these new policies slowed the pace of court dispositions. These changes included shifting judge assignments, revised case processing priorities, and the termination of prosecutorial discretion ("PD") closures. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had previously utilized PD closures to continually prune low priority cases from the court's backlog.

These findings are based upon the very latest case-by-case court records-current through the end of June 2017-that were obtained under the Freedom of information Act and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Abrupt Drop in Prosecutorial Discretion Court Closures

During the first five months of the Trump Administration prosecutorial discretion closures precipitously dropped to fewer than 100 per month from an average of around 2,400 per month during the same five month period in 2016. See Figure 1.

Under the last half of President Obama's administration, PD closures had been used to focus immigration enforcement resources on the removal of those viewed as presenting a risk to public safety or national security. This policy had also been used to defer the deportation of individuals without criminal records who had lived in this country for years, and thus had strong community ties. These individuals often had children who were U.S. citizens. Deferring their deportation avoided tearing these immigrant families apart, or disrupting local economies that relied on their labor.

As the latest court data demonstrate in Figure 1, under President Trump discretion to defer deporting individuals - irrespective of their circumstances -- has largely been abolished.

Figure 1. Prosecutorial Discretion Court Closures Drop in February 2017

At the same time, under President Trump the court has revised which cases on its docket receive priority processing and has reassigned some immigration judges to the southwest border. These policy revisions contributed to a change in the nature of the cases from the court's growing backlog that are being addressed.

Additional Immigration Judges Result in Rising Removal Orders

During June EOIR hired 11 new immigration judges. So far in July another judge has joined the court's ranks. These new judges joined an additional 79 judges who had been hired during the previous eighteen months. With more judges on the bench, not surprisingly there also has been a steady rise in overall number of removal orders the court has issued.

The increase in removal orders, as shown in Figure 2, began under President Obama and has continued during the initial months of President Trump's administration. For example, during the first five months (February 2017-June 2017) under Trump court removal orders averaged 8,996 a month, as compared with 6,913 during the same period in 2016.

To place these numbers in perspective, however, even with this rise in removal orders the number of court-ordered removals remains well below the level earlier in the Obama Administration. During the comparable five-month period in the first year of the Obama Administration court, for example, removal orders averaged around 13,500 per month. As shown in Figure 2, removal orders continued above 9,000 per month until early in 2012.

There has, however, been some month-to month variation. In fact, the number of court ordered removals in June 2017 totaled 8,919, down from 10,110 in March 2017. And despite the overall growth in removal orders, these have been insufficient to overcome the abrupt drop in PD closures. Thus, overall court dispositions under President Trump have fallen.

Figure 2. Removal Orders Issued Monthly by Immigration Judges (moving 5-month average)


[1] Results reported cover all court dispositions of cases filed by DHS seeking removal orders.

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact or call 315-443-3563.