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.