Immigration Case Backlog Continues To Grow

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 247,922 by mid June 2010, according to very timely government enforcement data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The case backlog has continued to grow - up 2.1 percent - since TRAC's last report three months ago, and a third higher (33.1%) than levels at the end of FY 2008 (see Figure 1).

Wait times have also continued to inch upward. The average time these pending cases have been waiting in the Immigration Courts of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is now 459 days.

Full details - by state, nationality, Immigration Court and hearing locations - can be viewed in TRAC's backlog application, now updated with data through June 21, 2010.

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

For comparisons with TRAC's earlier reports examining the volume of cases, wait times, and how these compare with the current number of Immigration Judges available to handle this growing caseload see May 2010, March 2010, June 2009 and July 2008 reports.

Selected Highlights

Wait Times by State
Wait times continue to be longest in California with 643 days, up from 627 days three months ago. Massachusetts average wait times inched up from 616 days to 620 days over the same time period. Michigan moved up to third place, with an average time of 515 days pending cases have been waiting in the Detroit Immigration Court - up from 504 days three 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 958 days - more than twice the national average of 459 days. Other nationalities within the top five in terms of the length their cases had been pending were Indonesia (774), Lebanon (709), Albania (674) and Iran (603).

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 the first nine months of FY 2010 was the Immigration Court in Harlingen, Texas, where pending cases jumped by 67 percent. The Las Vegas court ranked second, with a growth spurt of 58 percent during this year. San Antonio (up 55 percent), Chicago (up 39 percent), and Phoenix (up 37 percent) made up the remaining top five locations experiencing the highest growth rates in case backlogs. Portland just missed out being included in these ranks with a growth rate of 34 percent.

Courts With Declining Case Backlogs
Some courts, however, saw a decline in their number of pending cases during FY 2010. Again considering only courts with at least 1,000 pending cases at the end of last year, the court with the sharpest decline was in Oakdale, Louisiana. That court saw its backlog reduced by 32 percent. This was followed by the Orlando, Florida court where the pending caseload dropped by 15 percent during the last nine months. The Guaynabo, Puerto Rico court saw a drop of 10 percent. Miami and Atlanta saw their backlog of pending cases reduced by 5 percent.

Available Immigration Judges versus Arriving Cases
The backlogs of pending cases are driven by numerous factors. Chief among them is the number of available judges in the country or in a particular locality relative to how many cases the courts receive, the complexity of the cases and the time required to resolve them. Caseloads may be going up in one region or part of the country, and going down in another due to changes in the enforcement strategies of the Department of Homeland Security. Last year saw the influx of new proceedings and other matters received by the Immigration Courts reach an all time high.

While pending case backlogs continued to rise during FY 2010, the number of new proceedings filed in the Immigration Courts has fallen from the levels experienced during FY 2009. New proceedings received by the Immigration Court were down 2 percent during the first nine months of 2010 (230,327) as compared with the same nine month period through June 21 in 2009 (235,760).

Another factor that may be involved in the growing number of backlogged cases is the increased time required to decide some of them because of new requirements imposed by Court of Appeals and Supreme Court decisions.

Finally another piece of the puzzle is that the number of Immigration Judges actually declined over most of this period. And the ratio of judges to new court matters received has been declining over a much more extended period of time.

Because the pace of hiring has not kept up with judge turnover, positions that were vacant in 2006 are still waiting to be filled. At the time of TRAC's report in March, one out of every six judge positions was vacant. Since March, the Executive Office for Immigration Review has only sworn in five new Immigration Judges. Thus, EOIR still has a very long way to go to fill existing judge vacancies.