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Immigration Court Backlog Tops 3 Million; Each Judge Assigned 4,500 Cases

Published Dec 18, 2023

A new record was reached in November. The Immigration Court backlog passed 3 million pending cases. Just 12 months ago, during November 2022, the backlog was 2 million. That means the case backlog has grown by a million cases in just the past 12 months.

Immigration Judges are swamped. Immigration Judges now average 4,500 pending cases each. If every person with a pending immigration case were gathered together, it would be larger than the population of Chicago, the third largest city in the United States. Indeed, the number of waiting immigrants in the Court’s backlog is now larger than the population found in many states.

Previous administrations — all the way back through at least the George W. Bush administration — have failed when they tried to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of the Immigration Court "backlog."[1] Recently, however, the accelerating growth in the Court’s backlog has transformed the problem into an even more daunting challenge.

The accelerating pace of growth in the Court’s backlog is shown in Figure 1. Numbers for the chart are found in Appendix Table 1. During just the last quarter of July to September 2023, the backlog jumped by nearly 400,000 cases at an average increase of 130,000 cases per month. During October and November 2023, the monthly growth was even higher at an average of 140,000 per month.

Figure 1. Quarterly Growth in Immigration Court Backlog

More Judges and Accelerated Completions Not Enough

A detailed analysis of case-by-case Court records obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University revealed that at the end of September 2016, the final fiscal year of the Obama administration, the backlog stood at 516,031 cases, or roughly one-sixth of what it is now. The then 278 immigration judges completed an average of around 750 cases each year.[2] The average caseload assigned was 1,850 per judge.

The growth in the backlog accelerated during the Trump years. Compared to September 2016, the backlog grew two and a half times greater by September 2020 towards the end of the Trump administration. The number of judges on the bench had also grown to 484, and average pending caseloads were around 2,600 per judge.

Hiring of new judges accelerated during the first three years of the Biden administration. The EOIR’s latest personnel records show a total of 682 Immigration Judges now on the bench. In addition, each judge closed on average around 975 cases during the latest fiscal year. This is a closure rate nearly a third greater than seven years ago during the final year of the Obama administration. Even so, more judges and higher case closures per judge have still not been able to keep pace with the flow of incoming cases. Thus, average caseloads of the 682 judges now on the bench have jumped to 4,500 per judge.

Appendix Table 1. Quarterly Increase in Immigration Court Backlog
Month Backlog Increase
Sep 2016 516,031
Dec 2016 533,909 17,878
Mar 2017 572,608 38,699
Jun 2017 610,524 37,916
Sep 2017 629,051 18,527
Dec 2017 667,839 38,788
Mar 2018 692,298 24,459
Jun 2018 733,365 41,067
Sep 2018 768,257 34,892
Dec 2018 *819,325 51,068
Mar 2019 869,013 49,688
Jun 2019 945,711 76,698
Sep 2019 1,023,767 78,056
Dec 2019 1,089,696 65,929
Mar 2020 1,129,890 40,194
Jun 2020 1,218,737 88,847
Sep 2020 1,262,765 44,028
Dec 2020 1,290,766 28,001
Mar 2021 1,308,327 17,561
Jun 2021 1,357,820 49,493
Sep 2021 1,457,615 99,795
Dec 2021 1,596,193 138,578
Mar 2022 1,755,934 159,741
Jun 2022 1,821,440 65,506
Sep 2022 1,936,504 115,064
Dec 2022 2,056,328 119,824
Mar 2023 2,175,196 118,868
Jun 2023 2,401,961 226,765
Sep 2023 2,794,629 392,668
Nov 2023 **3,075,248 **280,619
* Estimate - due to the government shutdown TRAC received no EOIR data release that month.
** Just two months rather than a quarter.
[1]^ TRAC has chronicled the growth in the Immigration Court backlog in more than 50 reports since 2008. The January 2022 report contains a listing of these reports. See also a subsequent report in December 2022 titled “A Sober Assessment of the Growing U.S. Asylum Backlog.”
[2]^ The number of Immigration Judges used here represents the number on the payroll at the end of each period, excluding supervisory judges. Current numbers are based upon information EOIR sent to TRAC on December 14, 2023, in response to a FOIA request. Currently, in addition to 682 regular Immigration Judges “on the bench,” there were 49 supervisory Immigration Judges also on EOIR employment rolls.
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 trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.