Children: Amid a Growing Court Backlog Many Still Unrepresented

Despite a dramatic drop-off in new Immigration Court cases involving unaccompanied children this year, the backlog of pending children's cases has continued to rise. The latest case-by-case court data show that the court backlog of these children's cases reached an all-time high of 88,069 at the end of August 2017[1].

These detailed case-by-case Immigration Court records trace court proceedings on removal orders sought by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for unaccompanied children (UAC) who have been apprehended by the agency. The data, current through August 31, 2017, was obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) under the Freedom of Information Act.

The surge in unaccompanied children attempting to enter the country peaked during FY 2014 when there were 56,691 new child cases filed in the Immigration Court. More recently, in FY 2016, there were 48,401 new juvenile cases. This year has seen new UAC court cases plummet. During the first eleven months of FY 2017 court records show only 21,398 new cases.

Given the falling number of new cases, the continued rise in the court's backlog of UAC cases since President Trump assumed office is surprising. The current backlog of 88,069 represents four times the number of new UAC cases that reached the court during the first eleven months of FY 2017.

Table 1. Pending Immigration Court Unaccompanied Children Cases By When Case Began
Fiscal Year Number
Total 88,069
Pending since:
2017 19,600
2016 33,283
2015 12,126
2014 16,693
2013 3,782
2012 1,242
2011 455
2010 350
2009 173
2008 147
2007 73
2006 75
2005 70
* as of August 31, 2017

Litigation on some UAC cases necessitate complex applications for relief that may involve other government agencies and can stretch on for several years. There are still 16,693 cases pending that began during FY 2014. However the largest number of UAC cases still pending were initiated during the last two years. See Table 1.

Representation Rates

Previous research has shown that individuals who have an attorney have much higher odds of success in Immigration Court. See side-bar. Despite many initiatives to increase the availability of representation in children's cases, still nearly three out of ten children whose cases began during FY 2015 were unrepresented. (A total of 19,202 of these cases have already been decided, while 12,126 are still pending.) The figure rises to four out of every ten for cases that began during FY 2016, and jumps to three out of four for cases that originated during FY 2017. See Figure 2.

Few children appearing in Immigration Court have the financial resources to hire an attorney, even though in most of the matters it is reasonable to assume they do not comprehend the nature of the proceedings they face or the complex procedural and substantive challenges of the immigration law. In addition, most unaccompanied minors do not speak English.

Figure 1. Percent Unaccompanied Children Still Unrepresented
by Fiscal Year Case Began

While representation rates may rise, particularly for cases that began during this past fiscal year, court records clearly document that there is still a large unmet need for more attorneys despite widespread efforts to provide representation for these children.

For additional details on these cases see the accompanying web-based tool which provides the public with detailed access to the data TRAC has compiled on these cases.

Using this tool, you can drill in to pinpoint how many cases have been filed for any particular nationality, state, immigration court, and hearing location, and also find the current status of these cases. For those cases in which the proceedings have concluded, the outcome is provided. Additional details on each case are also available in the data tool.


[1] The court backlog at the end of August 2017 for all types of cases, including UAC proceedings, was 632,261.

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.