Immigration Courts: Still Backlogged Despite New Judges

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One of the many legacies George W. Bush bequeathed to his successor in the White House was an utterly broken system of immigration courts. At the same time the Bush administration was deporting record numbers of immigrants, it was using the nation’s immigration courts as a dumping ground for political hacks who weren’t qualified to serve on the regular federal bench. Rather than hire candidates based on experience, the Justice Department, under the guidance of former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, hired judges based on political loyalties and connections. A crushing caseload combined with the highly politicized environment left the immigration courts suffering from high turnover among judges and a vacancy rate that had reached 1 in 6 judgeships. By the time President Obama took office, the case backlog surpassed 200,000, with asylum-seekers and other petitioners waiting on average more than 400 days for a hearing.

Obama pledged to do something about all of this, even while promising to deport an additional 400,000 people this year. The administration has been hiring judges furiously, adding 44 new immigration judges to the bench over the past year, many of whom were filling slots that had been vacant since 2006. But a new study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) finds that far from solving the problem, those new judges seem to be barely stemming the tide of cases.

TRAC is a nonprofit that compiles data from the federal government and regularly crunches the numbers to see what comes out. They’ve been tracking immigration cases for a number of years. According to their data, the number of pending immigration cases has reached an all time high of more than 275,000, and wait times are almost twice as long now as they were at the end of 2008. Immigrants looking for legal relief in California have the longest wait times, with an average of 660 days, up from 639 days just a few months ago. And the problem is likely to get worse as the Department of Justice’s hiring spree comes to an end.

Juan Osuna, the new director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that the hiring efforts had come to an end thanks to a budget freeze. He estimated that the courts would lose at least 10 judges a year through attrition, and that the judicial crisis would continue. It’s an especially bad piece of news for the Armenians in the queue for asylum. TRAC estimates that Armenians have the longest wait time of any nationality in the courts, with the average case sitting around for nearly 900 days. While the Bush administration might be to blame for screwing up the immigration courts in the first place, the current mess will soon be owned entirely by Barack Obama.

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