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The Backlog for Pending Immigration Cases Has Nearly Doubled

Visa stamp
A black visa stamp

While the Trump Administration has made numerous attempts to curb legal and illegal immigration, the immigration court backlog has swelled from 542,000 cases in Jan. 2017 to more than 1 million as of Sept. 30, 2019, leaving people in Chicago waiting years to have their hearings before an immigration court judge. This backlog of cases has resulted from several factors and it poses problems for people who are left in limbo waiting for their cases to be heard. There are not enough immigration law judges to hear all of the cases. Former Attorney General Jeff Session’s change of policy directing immigration courts across the nation to reopen closed cases has also greatly contributed to the backlog. Trump’s ramped-up efforts to reduce the number of people who are granted asylum have also contributed to the problem. A combination of these factors has resulted in a large increase in pending cases and the resulting problems the backlog has caused.

Lack of Judges

While the Trump Administration has taken a hardline approach to immigration and has prioritized all people who are in the U.S. unlawfully for deportation instead of prioritizing those who have committed crimes, the government’s efforts have been focused on enforcement rather than on providing resources to the nation’s immigration court system. There are not enough immigration law judges to hear all of the cases that are pending, so the courts’ calendars are set out for several years. In some cities like New York and Chicago, the backlog is close to four years. 

While the Justice Department has hired more immigration law judges, there are still only approximately 400 immigration law judges working in the U.S. today. This is an increase from the 280 who were working during the Obama Administration. However, given that the number of pending cases has nearly doubled to more than 1 million, the increase in the number of judges has simply not been enough.  

Prioritizing All Undocumented Immigrants

During the Obama Administration, the government took an approach to the removal of undocumented immigrants of prioritizing those who had committed crimes of moral turpitude. These people would be targeted for removal and deportation procedures while law-abiding people who had established roots in the U.S. were largely left alone. The Trump Administration has taken the opposite approach and has instead prioritized everyone who is in the U.S. with undocumented statuses. There has been a substantial increase in the number of people with deportation and removal cases pending in the courts, including many people who have lived in the U.S. for years and have set down roots in the country. 

Change in Policy from the DOJ

Another major contributing factor to the immigration case backlog is a decision that was issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May 2018. Sessions announced a policy change and ordered the immigration judges across the U.S. to stop removing cases from their dockets without issuing decisions. This meant many previously closed cases were subsequently reopened, adding thousands of cases to the already clogged immigration court system. According to TRAC, a clearinghouse that tracks immigration court data, this decision has contributed more to the backlog than all of Trump’s efforts to reduce the numbers of people who are granted asylum at the southern border.

Crackdown on Asylum

The Trump Administration has focused on tamping down the number of people who are granted asylum at the southern border. To process the claims of asylum, the government has set up tent courts along the border that are closed to the public and has forced many people to wait on the other side of the border for their petitions to be heard. The number of people who have been granted asylum has substantially decreased in the past couple of years.

Problems the Backlog Has Caused

The backlog of immigration court hearings has caused multiple problems for people, including:

  • Long waits in detention facilities
  • People who establish roots that may be torn away by the time they have their hearings
  • Removal of people who are not dangerous 
  • Criminals have a lowered chance of removal 

People who are placed in detention facilities may wait months or years for their hearings. People who are not detained but who have pending immigration cases may establish roots in their communities while they are waiting for their hearings, only to have them ripped away if their petitions are denied. Focusing on deporting everyone who is undocumented, including people who have lived in the U.S. for years, means that families are torn apart. Since criminals are no longer prioritized above others, their chances of deportation are now reduced with the backlog in the system.

Coming Soon: New Naturalization Test

USCIS

American flag with u.s. citizenship and immigration services words

Immigrants will be required to undergo a new naturalization test in the near future. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is currently revising the existing naturalization test to make improvements to increase accuracy. Specifically, these revisions will help ensure that the test accurately measures the applicant’s knowledge of civics and that it exhibits best practices for assessing adult education.

What to Expect with the New Naturalization Test

In spring 2019, the former director of USCIS signed the Revision of the Naturalization Civics Test Memorandum, which details the revision of the naturalization test along with the revision of the schedule based on best practices in adult education.

The revision began in December 2018, when USCIS put together a naturalization test revision working group that included members from the agency. Following the formation of this group, members worked together to review and update the questions included in the naturalization test. The team was also responsible for assessing any potential changes to the speaking element of the test.

In addition, the agency has sought the input of various adult education experts to maintain fairness and transparency throughout the test. Following both officer training and analysis of the pilot, USCIS plans to implement the revised naturalization test in December 2020 or sometime in early 2021.

Requirements for Naturalization

The Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 312 covers the various civics and English requirements in place for naturalization. Candidates for naturalization are required to have a fundamental understanding of the English language, which includes the ability to speak, read, and write words using ordinary English. The Act also requires candidates to possess knowledge and comprehension of the fundamentals of U.S. history along with the form of government and its principles.

The revisions made to the test will be in compliance with all regulatory and statutory requirements, helping make sure that legal immigrants are prepared to meet their responsibilities as citizens of the U.S. and fully exercise their rights.

Keeping all of this in mind regarding the new naturalization test, applicants for naturalization will be able to prepare for the requirements of the test based on these revisions. For additional information about the new naturalization test and the specific revisions, individuals can visit the USCIS website and read the memorandum.

USCIS Grants Help Immigrants Prepare to Become US Citizens

Green card and social security card

A social security id card and a permanent resident card

On September 26, 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that the organization would award nearly $10 million in grants to 41 organizations responsible for preparing lawful permanent residents (LPRs) for citizenship.

The grants were also intended to help with assimilation into American culture through the funding of educational programs dedicated to educating immigrants on U.S. history, English, and civics. These organizations are located in 24 states. They will receive federal funding to support naturalization preparation services for LPRs up through September 2021.

How USCIS Grants Have Helped Immigrants

Since its inception in 2009, the Citizenship and Assimilation Grant Program has awarded immigrant-serving organizations over $92 million in 434 competitive grants within 39 states and the District of Columbia. By 2019, the program has provided assistance to over 245,000 LPRs seeking citizenship.

USCIS predicts that nearly 25,000 LPRs will benefit from these grants by September 30, 2021, because of the 2019 awards. Another 12,500 will benefit from the 2018 program, which ends on September 30 of next year.

All grants are given via the Citizenship Instruction and Naturalization Application Services grant opportunity. This opportunity supports organizations that assist LPRs with naturalization application and citizenship instruction.

Organizations receiving these grants are only permitted to use these funds to support immigrants who are lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the U.S.

Organizations Receiving USCIS Grants

Under the Citizenship Instruction and Naturalization Application Services funding opportunity regulations, organizations that are eligible to receive grants include private or public nonprofits that have recent experience providing assistance to LPRs for naturalization application and citizenship. These entities may include faith- and community-based groups, adult education institutions, public libraries, or literacy organizations.

The recipients in 2019 have served both traditional immigrant population centers and emerging centers located in 24 states. These recipients represent eight out of the top 10 states that have experienced the greatest population increase in LPRs along with the highest number of naturalizations between fiscal year 2015 and 2017. They also represent five out of the top 10 metropolitan locations with the greatest amount of naturalizations between 2015 and 2017.

In the process, these grants have been able to help thousands of immigrants and their families achieve citizenship and integrate into American life, and they will continue to do so into 2020 and beyond.

ICE Ignoring Policies After Veterans Risked It All

A solider with his daughter

A daughter holding her solider father’s hand

As new legislation has been reintroduced to help ease the transition to citizenship for deported immigrant veterans, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued to ignore policies already in place.

Although there are special considerations for immigration cases involving immigrant veterans, advocates say ICE is failing to review service records and thousands of vets are still getting deported.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it is not entirely known just how widespread the issue is due to insufficient record-keeping.

Failure to Track Deportations and Arrests

ICE is failing to adhere to the policy necessitating a service record review prior to deporting immigrant veterans. The organization also doesn’t track how many of these individuals are caught by federal agents or subsequently deported.

GAO discovered that ICE failed to follow its own policies involving veterans undergoing deportation from the years 2013 to 2018.

Many legal immigrants in the U.S. serve in the Armed Forces because it can help them earn citizenship, but they may not always qualify or complete the process. After separating, they may spend several years in the country until incidents such as criminal convictions come to ICE’s attention.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee required GAO to look through two databases. In the process, GAO found 250 veterans who had gone through removal along with 92 who had been deported.

ICE Policies for Veterans

Since 2004, ICE agents have been required to follow guidelines appearing in two memos regarding how to handle notices to appear for veterans, which is the initial step of the immigrant deportation process. As of 2015, cases have required submission to higher headquarters for review.

ICE agents must consider the following, at a minimum:

Regarding years of service, agents need to review how many years of service each veteran completed, awards, and deployments. If officials decide to proceed with the deportation, veterans’ files need to include memos detailing the service review.

This doesn’t happen in every case. In fact, the GAO report found that twenty-one percent of cases never receive a full review of service, and 70 percent never go to a higher office.

Legislation has been introduced to help protect immigrant veterans as ICE fails to follow existing policies.

The Repatriate Our Patriots Act

In addition to helping make obtaining citizenship easier for veterans who were later deported for criminal activity, the Repatriate Our Patriots Act would prevent federal officials from deporting those veteran immigrants, ensuring that they acquire legal permanent residency after their criminal sentences are carried out.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, stated that if a veteran is willing to put his or her life on the line to defend the U.S., he or she “should be able to become a U.S. citizen,” adding, “It is inexcusable that service members who risked it all to protect us would be put through the deportation process.”

Both Young and another representative, Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, pushed the bill, though it made minimal progress toward passage. However, now that Democrats are in control of the House, lawmakers are hoping that the bill will gain some momentum despite long odds in the Senate which is still Republican-controlled.

The Ongoing Debate Around Immigration

The reintroduction of this move comes as the nation continues to be divided regarding immigration, which has already initiated a partial government shutdown lasting for a month along with White House officials’ accusations that insufficient national security measures are putting the country at risk.

According to the two legislators behind the bill, the Repatriate Our Patriots Act would help ensure that immigrant veterans who served their time in prison for any crimes committed would be able to remain in the country, as long as they served honorably in the military.

The bill acknowledges that certain mental conditions such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder can increase the risk of substance abuse, and the subsequent minor drug offenses can lead to deportation for immigrants undergoing the naturalization process.

The Act wouldn’t protect veterans convicted of serious violent crimes including murder, child abuse, rape, or terrorism. It would also exclude immigrants facing serious legal issues while still serving in the Armed Forces.

Ultimately, this bill could help ensure that immigrant veterans who have served their time in prison for previous crimes can gain and retain citizenship in the U.S., thus helping veteran immigrants who were negligently deported get another chance.

Applying for Immigration Benefits? Your Social Media Accounts Could Be in the Spotlight

Social media apps

Closeup of social media applications on a smart phone

The Department of Homeland Security will soon be collecting social media information from approximately 33 million immigrants annually who apply for permission to enter or stay in the United States as well as those applying to become U.S. citizens. Questions about social media accounts and user names will be added to applications and USCIS forms in the coming weeks.

Why the Change?

DHS attributes the change to President Trump’s Executive Order 13780, which sought to improve security by creating additional scrutiny for people who want to enter the United States. People familiar with Trump’s “heavy vetting” rhetoric may understand where this change is coming from.

“U.S. Government departments and agencies involved in screening and vetting, to include DHS, identified the collection of social media user identifications (also known as usernames, identifiers, or ‘handles’) and associated publicly available social media platforms used by the applicant during the past five years, as important for identity verification, immigration and national security vetting,” states the DHS notice published on September 4.

In the past, DHS officials have used publicly available social media information to determine an applicant’s eligibility, but only now have they begun to consider forcing applicants to give up that information.

Which Sites Are of Interest?

DHS said they picked the social media websites of interest based on their global presence. These include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit, Tumbler, Pinterest and ten others.

Another DHS notice published in the Federal Register said immigrants will be made to include their current and past phone numbers and email addresses as well as other biographical data points.

Which Forms Will Be Impacted?

For immigration forms, the policy change will affect:

  • Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
  • Form I-131, Application for Travel Document
  • Form I-192, Application for Advance Permission to Enter as a Nonimmigrant
  • Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
  • Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal
  • Form I-590, Registration for Classification as Refugee

The change will also impact the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, Form I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record, and the Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS).

While the policy change raises privacy concerns for immigrants, DHS asserts that it will only review the information that is publicly available. By setting social media accounts to “private”, immigrants can minimize the amount of information available to DHS.